We have learnt a number of things about Joe Bonamassa during his career thus far: He is a truly great guitarist, he plays almost incessantly, he plays looooong sets and he is happy playing Blues or funk or rock or Blues. Oh, he is also a nice guy, wears suits onstage and loves to do something different every time he picks up a guitar.
I think I have reviewed every album of the last six or seven years and seen him in London every year since he first came to these shores so I can honestly say that I know his music better than most; this album really surprised me, as much through its familiarity as anything else!
When you see the headline ‘An acoustic evening’ your mind probably turns a softer sound than his full on Blues rock and that you get, especially on tracks like ‘Around The Bend’ where he is accompanied by Mats Webster on the Nyckelharpa (a keyed fiddle) and Gerry O’Connor on Irish fiddle and his finger picking works brilliantly alongside the Swedish instrument while Bonamassa’s vocal is clearly ‘him’ but hearing him working in an acoustic setting allows his voice to be more expressive. Mind, he has always featured an acoustic segment in his live sets but there it sometimes feels like a presentational construct rather than being fully committed – here it is not only natural but ‘right’ as well. On more familiar numbers like ‘Slow Train’ the fiddle takes his booming guitar licks and the pair deliver a number that is clearly all acoustic but has much of the power and atmosphere of the original. When you turn to a number such as ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ his guitar power is replaced with a more rhythmic feel but the quality of the song comes through and you can see just how good a songwriter Bonamassa is, under all the guitar pyrotechnics. There is no shortage of guitar but the metal bodied acoustic makes the solo all the more involving and the percussion from Lenny Castro drives the song along with real power, leaving the guitar to do its job. ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ features barroom piano courtesy of Arlan Schierbaum as well as accordion and, while I would still rather hear the Tom Waits original, the song comes over fine.
I have always been a great lover of his version of ‘Stones In My Passway’ and his slide here is sublime. The number comes over with great rhythm and catches a great deal of the original. It also leads into a terrific sequence of ‘Ball Peen Hammer’, ‘Black Lung Heartache’, ‘Mountain Time’ and ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ that are just the mutts nuts. ‘Sloe Gin’ is probably the best song that Tim Curry ever wrote and Bonamassa’s version has always been a crowd favourite – this version really catches at the heartstrings and he just nails the sense of isolation and loneliness encapsulated in the song.
You could almost treat this as a Bonamassa ‘Best of’ but there has been so much output along those lines with his Albert Hall and Beacon Theatre releases that he needed to come up with something fresh and this just about does it. The songs are the true strength here, along with his playing and, oddly enough, the weakest element of the music is his voice and that may be the acoustic of the hall itself.
A surprisingly enjoyable release – he does keep on making us sit up and take notice and for all the right reasons.