On October 5, 2017 the sold out 3,000 seat Arlene Schnitzer concert hall darkened as shadow figures walked onto the stage visible only by their black silhouettes contrasted against the colored lights illuminating the backdrops as Joe Bonamassa’s voice announced that there is a train coming. The band began playing “This Train,” the first of five songs from 2016’s Blues of Desperation. The lights came up as the band mimicked the sound of a steam locomotive chugging down the tracks. Train songs are a staple of the blues genre and Bonamassa recognizes that fact in the constant repetition of the railroad theme throughout his music. At the song’s conclusion the band immediately dove into “Mountain Climbing,” as Joe primed his guitar while the band played like a fine tuned machine and segued into the “Blues of Desperation.” The title song from the album began with a twangy didgeridoo Middle Eastern sound accelerating into exploding guitar riffs amidst Anton Fig’s (Fig’s resume reads like a who’s who of A list artists including Bob Dylan and David Letterman’s house band for 29 years to name a couple) drum detonations, until Joe stepped back to the microphone and sang the ode’s conclusion.
“Smile at me, while I live in damnation
Trying to make sense of these blues of desperation.”
Bonamassa began strumming power chords on his Gibson Les Paul as he worked his way into “No Good Place for the Lonely,” until he broke into a solo that brought him to the foot of the stage where he proceeded to wail and then walked back and forth as he grimaced while he squeezed out fret runs and tormented the strings until they begged for mercy and the entire auditorium rose to its feet in response. Joe was standing center stage in front of the microphone with his trademark sunglasses and sharp looking suit as he began “How Deep This River Runs.” Two of the backup singers from his Live at the Greek Theater album who were touring with Joe were Juanita Tippins from Sydney and Jade MacRae from Melbourne, Australia. Their presence became obvious as they provided the gospel background repeating the line “how deep the river runs,” with Joe’s guitar screaming peals of sound emanating into infinity.
“Little Girl” was a rocking out 1950’s sounding song with more action from his two backup singers. The horn section made up of R&B and Blues veterans Lee Thornburg on trumpet and Paulie Cerra on saxophone accompanied Joe as he stood in front of them trading off riffs with them on his Gibson ES. The song was written by Jimmy Page and John Mayall during the former’s “Blues Breaker” days.
“Breaking Up Someone’s Home” is an Albert King composition that Bonamassa used a Gibson Flying V guitar for. The song starts with the guitar’s heavy wailing and then the keyboards take over as Stevie Ray Vaughan “Double Trouble” veteran Reese Wynans helped facilitates the band’s ascension to the next level. Bonamassa and veteran rock and country session bass player Michael Rhodes stood center stage jamming in tandem with Fig’s drumming detonations keeping the beat. The entire band was interacting with each other as Thornburg’s trumpet alternated with Cerra’s sax. Then Bonamassa began singing again before he broke into the kind of guitar solo that you would expect from a Flying V ax. Bonamassa did some guitar gymnastics as he delicately picked out the tune until it became jazzy until he struck a note and sustained it while Wynans’s organ met and duplicated the sound. The girls sang the refrain, “breaking up someone’s home, whoo, whoo,” over and over until the number concluded. Joe moved to the left side of the stage and began a driving rhythm with the rest of the band behind him, until he exploded into a supersonic solo to begin Albert King’s, “Angel of Mercy.” Ear deafening peals of screaming guitar alternated with Joe singing,
“Angel of Mercy
Won’t you please look down on me?”
By the time that the entire band was registering on the Richter scale Anton Fig took his cue and proceeded to hammer out a 4 minute drum solo. When the song ended, Joe told the audience that he’d been coming to Portland since he was playing at the Roseland Grill and confessed his weakness for the many Sushi bars in the city. He was grateful to the audience for turning out on a Thursday night and then introduced all the band members. At the point that you expected an intermission for the band to take a break, Bonamassa announced “Slow Train” from the Dust Bowl album released seven years earlier. The song featured the girls on vocals after Joe sang the introduction. The band was really cooking when he took his solo alternating licks with the horn section and then the sax player alternated with the girls until the entire band jammed together as Joe squeezed every note possible out of his Fender Stratocaster. Once more Joe took center stage and began strumming his Gibson Sunburst while singing “Driving Towards the Daylight,” from his 2012 release of the same name.
“Look upon a mountain
Waitin’ on a train.”
The volume was cranked up to 11 as Bonamassa and Rhodes played off each other amidst melodic guitar runs until the song concluded with an extended outro that left Joe bowed over his ax. “Led Zeppelin’s” “Boogie with Stu” from their 1975 Physical Grafitti album has been in Joe’s set list for a while and as the title infers the band cooked as they played the boogie to the ivory tickling lead of Wynans. Joe was wailing on his “Flying V” as he and the girls sang in gospel call and response style.
“I don’t want no tutti-frutti, no lollipop
Com on baby, just rock, rock, rock.”
By the time that the band began “Last Kiss,” from 2009’s The Ballad of John Henry, most of the audience was on its feet and even dancing in the aisles. The band’s energy seemed to increase while Joe’s voice alternated with the horn section. Joe worked his “Flying V” with the organ and horn section following until everybody joined together and took it up another notch, if that were possible. Bonamassa was ripping it up with his guitar as he broke into “Cream’s” “I’m So Glad” and then mimicked Peter Frampton’s “talk box” as he brought the house down with the conclusion and then dove into another “Led Zeppelin” song from their 1969 debut, “How Many More Times.” Bonamassa switched back to his Fender Strat as he sang,
“How many more times, treat me the way you wanna do?
When I give you all my love, please, please be true.”
Bonamassa began a complex solo that changed octaves as he played a metallic sound while he worked the fret board until he began using nine fingers to play with. The driving peals of the guitar reached into the stratosphere until the band was playing along full steam ahead, with Joe ripping out power chords. He stepped up to the foot of the stage and cradled his guitar like it was a baby and played it with various effects that plumbed the depths and soared into the ether as it created every sound from keyboards to a Duane Eddy echo chamber. The crowd roared its approval as Joe motioned to them and thanked them for their support. The foot stomping, screaming and over all adulation brought the band back out for an encore. The show closer was Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird “with Joe giving the crowd another dose of ear splitting guitar runs as he sang,
“She’s little and she loves me
To my lucky day
Hummingbird don’t fly away.”
Review by Bob Gersztyn