Review: The Yin and Yang of Joe Bonamassa at Ruth Eckerd Hall

4:30pm - Yin

Driving into the parking lot of Ruth Eckerd Hall, for a late afternoon “meet & greet” with blues/rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Admittedly, I wasn’t that familiar with his work and I felt a bit unprepared. Beyond recent media flashes regarding his appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, and some hasty Internet research, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t have a single intelligent thing to ask. I resigned myself to keeping my mouth shut and taking pictures.

As I waited in the Green Room at REH with about a dozen avid fans, I noticed that they had come prepared. Most had tickets, t-shirts or magazines ready for an autograph, while one guy even clutched a limited edition Joe Bonamassa Gibson Les Paul in a case that looked as though it had never been opened.  I wondered if spending nearly his entire life in the public eye would make Joe one of those rock stars who take all of the attention in stride or if it had made him intolerant of rabid fans, autograph seekers and the media. Since I wasn’t sure which way it would go, I slid my camera backpack around to the front, in order to block any crazed, Britney-like attacks on the paparazzi that might be forthcoming.

As it turned out, Joe Bonamassa was not only tolerant of this small group of fans; he seemed almost shy and timid about all of the attention. He conducted the event as though a group of friends had dropped by his house for a beer and some conversation. He politely signed all of the items each guest offered, made a point of keeping the casual conversation going and waited patiently as cameras were passed back and forth for multiple pictures. When one attendee mentioned that he made custom guitar amplifiers, Joe seemed genuinely interested and even asked if he could get a look at one. As this guy was escorted into the hall to swap contact information with Joe’s road manager, I don’t believe that he could have been smiling any larger. Then Joe noticed the Les Paul.

“Is that a Joe Bonamassa Les Paul? Can I see it? I don’t get to see many that came off the production line.”

Nearly tearing the latches off the case, Mark proudly told the story of how he had to swap other guitars and lots of money to get his hands on this model.

“What serial number is it?” asked Joe. “You know, they only made 350 of these guitars, so they’re pretty rare.  As a matter of fact, I’ve got number 1 and several others; and my road manger has one but I don’t get to see many out in circulation. “

With that exchange, Joe asked a crew member to fetch Les Paul number 1 out of the “vault” for him. Handing it to Mark, Joe indicated that it was the main guitar that he used during the Live at Royal Albert Hall DVD. I could tell that Mark was excited and nervous at the same time, but would remember this moment for a long time. This was just another of the personal interactions between Joe and his fans that occurred over the thirty minutes or so that they were together. During this entire time, Joe seemed like a totally down-to-earth, humble and somewhat timid guy that genuinely appreciated his fans. Even after everyone was gone, Joe thanked me for staying around to document his signing of two guitars for local contest winners. I’m pretty sure that it was one of the rare instances where a celebrity actually thanked a member of the media for taking their picture. As it turned out, I didn’t even need to use my camera bag as protection.

8:00pm – Yang

Still mulling over the events of the afternoon, I readied my camera for the usual three-song photography limit when I heard my name. Mark, the guy with the Les Paul, was walking towards me with a really nice Canon camera and photo pass that matched mine. As it turns out, Joe Bonamassa is one of those unusual artists who, not only encourages photography and recording his shows, will give any fan a photo pass if you send him an email. It just seemed to be another example of Joe’s yin side.

Finally, the lights dimmed and Joe appeared on the stage wearing dark sunglasses, playing a double-neck electric guitar. The expression on his face and confident movements made it immediately clear that this wasn’t the same Joe I had met earlier. This Joe commanded the stage with the experience and confidence of someone who had spent nearly twenty years in front of a crowd and was completely comfortable there. Gone was the timid, shy Joe and in his place stood a rock star.

As I fired off a few hundred frames with my trusty Nikon, and then later from complimentary seats Joe had provided my wife and me, I began to understand Joe Bonamassa a bit better. Although his rock star side seemed to be in charge on stage, the humble, shy traits were still evident in quiet moments or when the lights dimmed. He tore through song after song, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with each solo, eliciting a standing ovation after nearly every song. Even in the quieter moments when he was onstage alone with an acoustic guitar, some fans couldn’t contain themselves and yelled “You go, Joe”. This was the type of fan dedication and emotion that is usually only associated with bands like The Grateful Dead or Phish.

Walking through the parking lot a bit early to miss the traffic, I could still hear the sounds of Joe’s last encore floating in the air and the crowd cheering loudly. In all, it was a great day with an artist that has probably gained a new fan. Not only his music, but a genuinely nice personality that makes you want to like him. If you missed his show this time, be sure to catch it during his next visit and don’t forget to email him about your photo pass. I know I will.

To see more images from the "meet & greet", as well as the concert, check out Jeff's online portfolio.

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