Joe Bonamassa famously opened for B.B. King at the age of 12, but look at that little blonde prodigy now: He’s initiated a mini-tour with a power trio backing him up. In this case, it’s more of a super trio. The lineup looks like this: drummer Anton Fig, who used to be Paul Shaffer’s right-hand man; Pulp bassist Steve Mackey on…bass; and Australian soul vocalist Jade MacRae providing harmonies and backing vocals. Very seldom does JoeBo go out with a power trio as such backing him up, so those who had a minor case of tinnitus at the end of Monday night’s show at Ruth Eckerd Hall couldn’t have been too pissy when driving home, right?
Last Monday night, all regular safety precautions were in order—masks were required except while eating or drinking, XONAR-powered temperature checks upon entry were in place, and tickets were only being sold in pairs, which ultimately left two seats in between each party of two. Even Mackey and Fig were masked up and socially distanced the entire night. You can’t really blame JoeBo and MacRae for not wearing theirs—after all, they’re the ones who have to sing.
Appropriately, John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” blared over the speakers as the house lights dimmed at 8 p.m., and the 43-year old shredder walked out, dressed in white dress pants, a dark grey blazer with roses going down his left side, and of course, those trademark Bonamassa sunglasses. “It’s lovely to be in front of human beings again, playing music!” he exclaimed, slowly launching in “Oh Beautiful!,” off of his Different Shades Of Blue album.
Most everyone in the music world thinks of six-strings rather than acrobatic vocal cords when it comes to Bonamassa, which is totally fair. Nonetheless, his pipes are not something to be overlooked, and he more than proved their freshness and solidity on “Lookout, Man,” which co-starred a minty-green Fender Stratocaster. That one would only be used that once throughout the two-hour shredding showcase. On “Beyond The Silence,” Bonamassa gave what felt like an hour-long solo, with a different Fender model that was hard to identify from a distance, but was certainly one that Bruce Springsteen has used.
“You may ask, ‘Why did I put that big, prog-rock section in the middle of the song?’” Bonamassa said following the end of his ravaging “Beyond The Silence” solo. “The answer is, because I fucking wanted to!” Following the room’s eruption of approval, it was clear that we could all agree on one thing: If you ask JoeBo the purpose of one of his solos, you, my friend, are at the wrong concert.
Practically every composition on the 14-song setlist consisted of a mid-song guitar solo running between two and 15 minutes long. Though there were scattered cheers and whooping now and then, it still felt like the entire room was absolutely hypnotized by this Utica boy’s chops. The rest of the show consisted of a number of surprises, such as Bonamassa talking about how his high school girlfriend cheating on him with his own bandmate inspired “Miss You, Hate You.” That portion of the show put the spotlight on Anton Fig for about two minutes, as he presented a pretty badass drum solo. It wasn’t on the level of a Carl Palmer solo, but he still managed to trigger scattered standing ovations amongst the crowd.
Near the end of the main set came back-to-back, JoeBo-ified covers of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Scuttle Buttin’,” and Jeff Beck’s “Blues De Luxe,” the latter featuring Bonamassa trying to imitate a pedal steel guitar, all thanks to his pedal rig on stage left. Ending the main set was “The Ballad Of John Henry,” which featured MacRae showing off her powerhouse pipes through a two-minute improv session. Honestly, I’d pay good money to hear her sing Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig In The Sky” sometime.
Yes, there was a two-song encore—and if those last few minutes of JoeBo’s 2021 trip to Clearwater served as the only time you ever see Joe Bonamassa live, you’d still walk away mesmerized. A single light shone down on him as the power trio took a backstage breather, and he launched into something completely different: For the first time all night, he broke out an acoustic guitar. “Woke Up Dreaming” was stretched out to almost 10 minutes, as it featured strumming and plucking so intense, Lindsey Buckingham would gape and hang his head in shame, had he been in the room. Quick to follow, but unable to upstage what had just happened was the trio’s return to the stage, closing up shop with Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” an utter blues classic.
Somewhere, B.B. King was smiling and nodding his head in approval of the effortless shredding his young Padawan was doing—and during a worldwide pandemic no less.
See a list of Tampa “Safe & Sound” live music venues here.
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