Gig Review: Joe Bonamassa, Brighton Centre, Brighton, UK, Saturday 23 April 2022
By Ellie Rogers
It’s been three years and two albums since Joe Bonamassa last took to the stage in the UK, and – as the sold-out Brighton Center crowd on Saturday 23 April will surely attest – it’s great to have him back.
Flocking to this English seaside venue is an audience comprised of long-serving fans as well as plenty of youngsters – all excited to witness the man who’s widely been heralded as one of the greatest guitar players on the planet. Just before 8pm, the house lights dim and striking the perfect chord with the mood in the room, John Sebastian’s nostalgic ’70s hit ‘Welcome Back’ plays out over the PA system. It’s an apt choice, and the already eager gig goers exchange nods and smiles of anticipation. The ride is about to begin, and for many, it’s a moment they’ve been dreaming of since those heady, pre-pandemic days.
At 8pm sharp, the stage lights flare into life and Joe – clad in his trademark dark suit and shades – strides onto the stage clutching a beautiful cherry red Gibson SG. His band of stellar musicians assembles. Behind the drums sits Greg Morrow, to Joe’s left there’s keyboard legend Reese Wynans and bassist Steve Mackey, and to his right stand backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Danielle De Andrea, as well as Josh Smith – a blues guitar dynamo in his own right.
Without further ado, the band launches straight into a riotous rendition of ‘Evil Mama’ from the 2018 album Redemption. Propelled along by a John Bonham-esque drum groove, Joe gets straight down to business and starts serving up one tasty lick after another – making it look enviably easy as he does so. Live on stage, his material takes on an even more vital quality than the recordings and we’re treated to impressive improvised solos from both Joe and Wynans. At the close of the latter, Joe gestures to the crowd to show their appreciation and receives a cacophony of woops and whistles in return. He has all 4000 members of the audience in the palm of his hand already.
Part of the joy of a Joe Bonamassa gig – for the strong contingent of guitar enthusiasts in the crowd, at least – is that you get to take a peek at his world-renowned collection of vintage and rare axes, and Joe certainly doesn’t disappointed on this front. By song three, he’s already rolled through as many guitars. For the sultry desert groove, ‘Dust Bowl’ he whips out a stunning 1964 Gibson ES-335 with a Bigsby and gold hardware (a cursory scroll of his Instagram account reveals that this is a recent acquisition), before changing to a road worn Fender Stratocaster for the crowd pleasing ‘Love Ain’t a Love Song.’ Behind him also stands a wall of eight or so vintage and boutique amplifiers, which he flips between from song to song.
While this heavy rotation of rather expensive gear might seem a bit showy, it’s really a testament to Joe’s thoroughness and dedication to getting the right tone for each song. Proof of this comes next in the form of an electrifying version of Gary Moore’s ‘Midnight Blues’. For this, Joe’s diligent guitar tech hands over a Gibson Les Paul – the only guitar for the job, of course. Throughout, Joe channels Gary Moore’s distinctive tones and techniques before accelerating into what can only be described as an absolute face melter of a solo. The crowd couldn’t be happier. Joe, too, appears to be in his element as he packs in more fiery notes per second than you’d imagine possible.
Up to this point, tracks from either of Joe’s latest records (2021’s Time Clocks and 2020’s Royal Tea) have been curiously absent from the set, but he soon remedies this by weaving ‘The Heart That Never Waits’ and ‘I Didn’t Think She Would It’ alongside the older favourites.
The former boasts a different kind of guitar mastery – quieter and more restrained – with plenty of nuanced touches that are equally as captivating as the wild, wailing solos that have preceded thus far. The latter then bursts into life, drenched in wah wah pedal and overdrive, and with all the urgency of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’. Pairing these two tracks together is testament to Joe’s ability to create a gripping and dynamic trajectory in any live performance, and the crowd is loving all the twists and turns.
While it’s easy to focus on Joe’s playing prowess, his vocals are also gritty and on point, and there’s plenty of other stunning musicianship to admire on the stage. For much of the set, Josh Smith plays the part of the perfect sideman with his tasteful supportive playing – but he, too, is given time to display his sublime blues chops on songs like ‘Lonely Boy’. Joe watches and listens intently as he does so, again the crowd to show their appreciation.
Likewise, tracks like ‘Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should’ and ‘Pain and Sorrow’ give Reese Wynans more chances to shine with his unmatched Hammond organ skills. As his hands race across the keys, its rotary speaker revolves furiously just behind him, and there’s something magical about being able to see the inner workings of the instrument, while hearing its iconic, instantly recognisable sound. All the while, the brilliant backing vocalists sing and dance away in unison behind the band.
Nine songs into the set, Joe finally addresses the crowd. “It’s nice to be back… anywhere” he says, before going on to describe Brighton as “The Malibu of England”, much to the titillation of the local crowd. He also introduces the band and singles Josh Smith out as “the best guitarist on this stage” in a moment of genuine admiration for his friend and bandmate, before welcoming Whitesnake legend, Bernie Marsden, to the stage for a surprise appearance on ‘A Conversation With Alice’.
Now that the silence between songs has been broken, it feels as though an important rapport has been formed between artist and audience, and the performance shifts up another gear with all three guitarists taking solos that showcase their very different characteristics and styles. It’s a joy to see and hear. After trading fiery licks with Joe and Josh, Bernie exits the stage to a huge standing ovation – and rightly so.
A final highlight comes in the form of a lengthy rendition of ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ – complete with an Eastern flavored vocal solo from MacRae, as well as a wild theremin-meets-guitar solo from Mr. Bonamassa. It’s quite something to behold and an absolute masterclass in how to make a crowd go crazy. As the song – and the set – burns to a close, Joe exits stage right, holding an aged butterscotch blonde Fender Telecaster aloft in triumph.
The second standing ovation of the night goes to him, and he’s more than earned it after an unforgettable, otherworldly performance.
The UK leg of Joe Bonamassa’s tour will conclude with two nights at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 5th and Friday 6th of May.
Joe Bonamassa website