Joe Bonamassa pays homage to the inspirational music of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, in A Salute to the British Blues Explosion.
07-July-2016: Over the past decade, Joe Bonamassa has earned a reputation as one of the most respected blues guitarists of his generation. He is both hard-working and hard-performing with a collection of highly-acclaimed albums behind him and the confidence to take up challenges to which lesser musicians might shy away.
Bonamassa headlined Day 3 of the Greenwich Music Time Festival with one of just five dates of his Salute to the British Blues Explosion tour. He planned this tour as a tribute to the three British blues guitarists – Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page – the musicians who had such an impact on the young Bonamassa.
The venue is the majestic 17th century Greenwich Old Royal Naval College. Its centuries old architecture greets new arrivals as guests move to their seats. In a short time, the sound of classic blues guitar would fill the courtyard.
While the night’s forecast was uncertain, and the occasional sprinkling of rain, good fortune smiled, and the weather remained warm and dry. A crowd of almost 5,000 were still arriving during the opening set from the blues singer/songwriter, Joanne Shaw Taylor, twice winner of Best Female Vocalist at the British Blues Awards.
Taylor is known for her powerful, husky, and soulful vocals and her mean, energetic guitar work. Her passion for the blues is evident; her big smile, infectious. She thrilled the crowd ending with a standing ovation. Based on the exuberant audience response, Taylor gained many new followers that night.
Bonamassa’s band, four of the greatest musicians in the world he later tells us, take the stage. They launch into the intro of “Beck’s Bolero.” The modern day bluesman, himself, joins in, triggering cheers from the crowd.
The Spanish-like rhythm, slide guitar, and piercing riffs merge almost seamlessly into the heavier blues style of “Rice Pudding,” which whips up the excitement, letting us know we are in for a rousing evening.
Bonamassa keeps the energy high with his version of Eric Clapton’s upbeat “Mainline Florida” followed by “Boogie With Stu” by Led Zeppelin, which showcases some great boogie-woogie piano work from notable rock n’ roll hall of fame inductee, Reece Wynans. It is great fun and has all tapping our toes to the rhythm.
With a low stage and non-tiered seating, it’s impossible for all but the tallest to get a view of the maestro on stage. Many vacate their seats and join those along the sides for a better view.
Bonamassa tells us that, tonight, he’s going back to his childhood, to the music and musicians that meant the most to him, to his first introduction to British blues via Jeff Beck’s Truth album. Jokingly, he explains that, had it not have been for such music, he would probably be selling vacuum cleaners today.
He plays a trio of Jeff Beck songs from the first two albums he bought as a child. The first is Buddy Guy’s classic “Let Me Love You Baby,” including an epic Bonamassa guitar solo. “Plynth” is next with its funky vibe and staccato licks followed by the full-on rocker, “Spanish Boots.”
A change of pace and style follows with Clapton’s more mellow and bluesy “Double Crossing Time” from his time with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the strangely upbeat “Motherless Children” from his acclaimed 461 Ocean Boulevard album. Clearly, Bonamassa’s intention is to give us a varied a snapshot of the work of these three artists as possible, showcasing his ability to play all styles of the blues.
Bonamassa takes an opportunity to present his band. Keyboardist Reece Wynans is aided and abetted by impressive multi-instrumentalist, Russ Irwin, on keyboards and guitar, the latter who Bonamassa introduced as his next-door neighbour. Anton Fig, known for his work in David Letterman’s house band is on drums with the rhythm section rounded out by bassist Michael Rhodes.
The fading daylight fades yields to a magnificent sunset adding to the magical feel of the night. A stunning backdrop of the dark River Thames sits in contrast to the twinkling lights of the 24-hour city business district, which illuminate the Canary Wharf skyscrapers against the night sky. The setting serves as a stark reminder of just how far the musical influence of the Mississippi Delta has spread.
To the delight of the crowd, Bonamassa introduces Cream’s “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow), knocking out a rendition more bluesy than the original. He says of the title and lyrics, “I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about!” The rainbow colored lights display the song title on the stage, which echo the sunset overhead, deep with hues of brilliant red, orange, and yellow.
A change to the musical mood comes with Led Zeppelin’s “Tea For One,” running into “Can’t Quit You Babe” with some spectacular and intense guitar work, and teasing solos. Bonamassa wrenches every note, every emotion out of his beloved Gibson before returning to more Clapton with “Little Girl” by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the instantly recognisable 1989 hit, “Pretending.”
Courageously, Bonamassa has opted for mostly lesser-known songs from these famous artists when it would perhaps have been easier to perform classic crowd-pleasers. Rather than play strict covers, Bonamassa free-forms his own interpretation effortlessly proving his outstanding musicianship, and understanding of the blues. After all, the blues is not stagnant; rather it progresses and evolves with time, life, and experiences.
It is not, therefore, a surprise that Bonamassa chooses to play a somewhat obscure Zeppelin track, the “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” medley with an excerpt of “Django” as its outro adapting easily to its eastern flavour.
To close the two-hour extravaganza, Bonamassa opts for the monster of all the songs, “How Many More Times” by Zeppelin, complete with a dynamic, much-appreciated drum solo from Anton Figg. The crowd is up and dancing, loving every minute of it.
Bonamassa returns for an encore and opts to slow the pace down a notch. To bring this magical evening to a close, he teases his audience with just the first few chords of a song. The crowd bursts into applause and whoops of delight as they recognise “Sloe Gin” by Tim Curry. Bonamassa plays with a subtle intensity and tenderness, his emotion oozing through the haunting lyrics. He rolls effortlessly through a sublime guitar solo, as only Joe Bonamassa can, ending with rapturous applause.
Joe Bonamassa’s A Salute to the British Blues Explosion tour in London was an “I was there” event exemplified by is skill playing blues guitar. His jaw-dropping finger dexterity around the fretboard is amazing, and yet he makes it look so effortless.
And whilst the event showcased the past, it happily overlaps with the present with a nod to the new generation of blues guitarists the likes Joe Bonamassa and even the young Aaron Keylock who was spotted amongst the crowd this evening.
The blues are alive and well, in both the US and the UK. Just as this night’s performance honoured the legendary blues players of the past who influenced the preeminent blue players of today, so may a tour some day in the future pay tribute to the blues great, Joe Bonamassa. Only time will tell.
Photos by kind permission of: Christie Goodwin (Photos 02-03), Dafydd Jones (Photos 05), John Bull (Photos 06-07), Laurence Harvey (Photos 08-09), Colin Hart (Photos 01-04).