Amongst the beautiful surroundings of the grand Old Royal Navy College buildings, a massive stage stood next to the river Thames, and set an unexpectedly stunning setting for an evening of great music provided by the one and only Joe Bonamassa.
An incredibly skilled blues rock guitarist, Joe and his seasoned band played the songs of Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton to a crowd of 5,000 people, plane passengers flying overhead and, I’m pretty sure, anyone living in a five-mile radius.
For a man who has done it all, including opening for B.B King when he was only 12 years of age, I attended this concert with anticipation of a great display of musical ability; I got this and more. From a genuine glimpse into the man behind the music, from his warm interaction with the audience to solos in every song that delivered not only skill, but feeling, Joe is really on a whole other level.
Opening with the instrumental Beck’s Bolero/Rice Pudding, and almost feeling like I was in an episode of Star Wars, the band were musically introduced with the solid and unafraid drumming of Anton Figg, a raging organ solo from Reese Wynans, Michael Rhodes fantastically holding down the groove on bass, and the multi-talented Russ Irwin on keys (and later guitar and backing vocals). Joe’s opener was only a glimpse into the fierce, hard-hitting musical experience that we were about to enjoy.
With the Thames in the background, Bonamassa proceeded to play Eric Clapton’s Mainline Florida from his 461 Ocean Boulevard album, followed by Led Zeppelin’s Boogie With Stu, where the keys in particular really stood out, and a solo from Joe that had the crowd whooping and clapping. He proceeded to explained the reason behind the choice of music for this gig:
“Tonight, we are celebrating the music of Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton; three musicians who, if they didn’t exist, I’d be a vacuum salesmen!”
Though not giving enough credit to his own natural ability (and I’m sure he wouldn’t be the best vacuum salesman as he seems too calm and easygoing), Joe’s honesty and appreciation of his fellow guitarists really helped the audience to warm up and get more into the show.
With stage lighting that matched the ever-setting sun, my favourite guitar solo from Bonamassa came in Jeff Beck’s Let Me Love You, in which half-way through, the band quietened down to make space for the guitar hero to show us exactly what he was capable of. With a skill level that is just unreal, Joe effortlessly makes his guitar speak, whisper, shout, and scream; the the audience responded with whoops, those slow claps that only come when people are in awe, and I even overhear a guy next to me shout, “Oh man, he’s so good!” Nicely put, sir.
This song was also particularly special, as there was a great call and response section from Joe and Russ Irwin, whose growly voice fitted the song perfectly.
It took the audience a while to really get into the groove, I think largely due to the seated layout of the gig (if some people stood, nobody could see behind), but they showed their appreciation through rapturous applause, hand signs, and standing ovations after songs such as John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers' Double Crossing Time, which also showcased some incredible drumming from Anton Figg, and a masterclass solo rom Joe.
Best song of the night? For me, Eric Clapton’s Pretending, which was just musically superb in every way, with some epic drumming on display from Figg again. With stage lighting that set the atmosphere of every song perfectly, and synced to even the most subtle of musical moments, as the sun set on Joe Bonamassa and the gig came to a close, all 5,000 people left were on their feet, and rightly so: this man is a highly skilled and heartfelt musician.
The feeling that was left from this gig was one of nostalgia. Joe had told us stories of his dad coming home with a video of Eric Clapton’s Cream Farewell gig at the Royal Albert Hall (which is when Bonamassa became inspired and said, “I want to be like Eric with his big red guitar when I grow up”). And we got a welcome glimpse into the life and the pivotal moments that inspired him to become the artist, guitarist, singer and songwriter that he is today.
Nevertheless, we as an audience stood like proud parents watching the very same child who has grown up to be a musical force in his own right - somebody who makes a specific effort to inspire other blues musicians, and will be the inspiration for the next guitar star who will have received a DVD of a Bonamassa gig and thought, ‘I want to be like him when I grow up’.
Review by Kat Deal
Photo by Christie Goodwin