Last night’s gig was a deep immersion into blues-rock guitar; daunting territory for the timid, but right up my alley. It might be a daggy alley, but at least I know where I’m going.
I’d heard Joe Bonamassa’s name before, but hadn’t investigated what he was about until a work mate – whose love of the blues immediately made me trust his musical taste – said that Joe was his favourite guitarist. I listened to some tracks, was wowed by the six-string wizardry on display, and bought myself a front-row ticket for the State Theatre last night.
First up was Blue Mountains one-man band Claude Hay, who I think I’ve now seen five times. Claude seems to be the go-to guy to support anything rootsy: he’s opened recently here for Matt Andersen, Great Big Sea, and Seasick Steve. I’m still amazed by his slide guitar, picking, bass, bongo, kickdrum, and looping proficiency. He only got four songs last night, but he gave it his all (and was still as charming as ever).
And then – right on time, with only a 10-minute interlude, no rock star egos here – Joe Bonamassa came out and his band followed (in dribs and drabs). He started with a handful of acoustic songs. I didn’t find these songs terribly engaging, as they featured a lot of straight strumming; it could have been anyone. And Joe’s lyrics aren’t the star of the show, though his voice is very good. “Dislocated Boy” was OK, but it was only when he hit “Woke Up Dreaming” at the end that he started to show off. But look, as a warm-up it was probably the right thing to do for him and for the crowd.
But when the full electric band kicked off “Slow Train”, followed by “Dust Bowl” I was right where I wanted to be. The fingers were flying, the strings were bending, and Joe – hidden behind his shades until the final bow – was grimacing with every fret-ripping blur of his hand.
My favourites, beyond those first two songs, were “The Ballad of John Henry” and the final song, ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid”. I didn’t take notes, but I think last night’s setlist matched the Brisbane one pretty closely; I’m sure some super fans can confirm.
Joe delivers full-on power with blinding guitar speed; he plays hard and loud, full-electric blues-rock, just like the British blues wave that he was influenced by. He and his solid backing band often sounded as much like Zeppelin as the old blues masters, and they even blasted us with a healthy doze of “Dazed and Confused” to prove it during “Just Got Paid”. The State Theatre crowd rushed the stage for the encore songs, probably a pretty rare occurrence for that reserved venue.
It’s clear that extensive guitar wankery isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This music is a holdover from a past age, and I was in the lower percentile of attendee age last night. But Joe is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen, and he’s a good showman, a good singer, and a great interpreter of blues-rock. It was six-string glorious enough to deliver, and to probably satisfy my guitar craving for a good long while.