Austin City Limits Livestream, 1/4/2021
published: 7 /
For fans of guitarist and singer-songwriter Joe Bonamassa, Lisa Torem discovers that the Austin City Limits livestream is an exciting way to celebrate the old and the new in the comfort of one’s home.
Watching two-time Grammy nominated Joe Bonamassa with his power trio in the privacy of my living room is a luxury I could easily get used to! We all know how difficult life has been for our beloved touring musicians during this dreaded pandemic, but Bonamassa’s live-stream from the iconic Austin City Limits definitely chased this girl’s troubles away.
Let’s not forget the elephant in the room though. We’re still getting used to staying home in our bedroom slippers, rather than dressing up and facing the outside world for a live,local event.
Then again, we’re still astonishingly connected, aren’t we? World-wide audiences were chatting over Facebook before and after the performance, and although a few experienced minor bugs, most fell immediately into sync with the superb sound and palpable visuals. I appreciated that the filming was a straight-forward affair; I’ve seen concert videos comprised of spotty audience shots, jarring camera angles, and annoying speeded-up or slowed down nuances, but here, the clear closeups were saved for the blues man’s incredible finger-style flamenco, searing electric solos, and interactions with David Letterman drummer Anton Fig and bassist Steve Mackey (who stepped in for veteran bassist Michael Rhodes.)
That said, Fig’s ever-sultry backbeat was a joy to behold. He also stunned all-concerned by breaking into a highly imaginative solo after Bonamassa introduced the personnel.
Australian vocalist, Jade McCray, has been one of the act’s long-term talents. Dressed in a sparkly black dress, she moved dynamically to the beats. To her credit, her husky contralto blended splendidly with Bonamassa’s soulful tenor. At one point, McCray, too, grabbed the spotlight, performing wild vocalese during a free-spirited jam.
Bonamassa has always come up with clever staging and arranging ideas for his shows. But when introducing this pared-down ensemble, he chuckled, recollecting orchestrated concerts, with so many musicians onstage at a given time, that he nearly forgot names.
Fan favourites were pre-selected from a pick of 24 studio albums. An added bonus is that, fans who missed the show, can access a pass that will be good for a solid month of viewing. Monies will, in part, fund the “Fueling Musicians Program,” set up for the many musicians who have lost wages over the past year due to Covid-19.
The high-octane, ‘Oh, Beautiful’ , an illuminating track from 2014’s ‘Different Shades of Blue’, was a viable contender for the most all-hands-on deck ensemble piece.
We also got a taste of how well Bonamassa and McCray’s vocals would meld, as here, the hook was sung acapella-style. Instrumentally, the rock star relied on a razor-sharp riff, but watching him slide down the fret board to play piercingly high notes on his Fender was also a treat.
‘Love Ain't a Love Song’ was funky and soulful; McCray turned up with a tambourine. Fig’s chops assumed tsunamic proportions. As Bonamassa crept across the stage, he set off a series of zany effects, before bending choice, blues-y notes. Clearly excited, he recounted playing recently for cardboard cutouts. That he was excited to play in front of Covid-free attendees, was clearly evident.
Then, life slowed to a beautiful simmer: ‘Midnight Blues’ was dedicated to the late guitarist Gary Moore. “Can’t get no sleep,” Bonamassa crooned. “” Don’t know what to do.” The front man soaked the raw lyric with genuine reverence, but the crescendo was equally spellbinding.
The bass-heavy, scratchy ‘Lookout Man!’, a co-write between Bonamassa, Pete Brown and long-time co-producer, Kevin Shirley, was recorded last year for ‘Royal Tea’. “Lookout Man, I’m wearing tiger stripes,” is but one of the dizzying and descriptive lines. There was plenty of room for Bonamassa’s crusty vocals, meticulous bends and chord dampening.
‘Beyond the Silence’, another relatively new song, found its footing with Fig and Bonamassa heatedly facing off. Bonamassa’s exhilarating solo was formed around a jangular, complex motif.
Again, the cameras accommodated, allowing us witness to the guitarist’s immutable bond with his guitar; eyes closed, fingers accelerating with lightning speed, with starts and stops along the suspenseful way. Fig’s drum rolls were as tasty and essential as hot sauce on a plate of pedestrian rice and beans.
‘Jockey Full of Bourbon' rekindled another infusion of heavy imagery: I mean, “bloody fingers on a purple night?” What a poetry-slam beauty! This was a perfect fusion of Tom Waits’ cinematic soul and Joe Bonamassa’s exclamatory chops. For the solo, Bonamassa nearly sunk below the sight lines, while procuring other-worldly intonations.
For ‘Pain and Sorrow’, as Bonamassa glided his fingers across the board, Fig buoyed up a shuffle beat; the former echoed the rhythmic intensity. Without compromising clarity, Bonamassa completely lost himself during the fiery solo, a real Hendrix-esque send off, as Fig artfully succumbed to a whisper. Embracing the quiet spaces between the notes, Bonamassa seasoned the song with the occasional hammer-on or pull-off, before exploding.
They travelled back to ‘Black Rock’ for ‘Wandering Earth’, which, surprisingly, has not been featured in concert up to now. Most memorable, was the juxtaposition of wild strumming and hardcore shredding.
Committing to a sad story about early unrequited love before the Americana-flavored,‘Miss You, Hate You.’ the acclaimed guitarist sprinkled a chord here and there, as Fig rolled out his vigorous wares.
For a complete contrast, the band celebrated the late Austin, Texas titan Stevie Ray Vaughan, with ‘Scuttle Buttin’, another tune based off a remarkable roots-y riff and creeping bassline, with a notable rockabilly appeal that harkens back to Lonnie Mack’s ‘Chicken Pickin’’.
‘Blues Deluxe’ may have been conceived with the Jeff Beck Group’s 1968 album, ‘Truth,’ but the song went through puberty on Bonamassa’s 2003 album of the same name. Despite its decades-long trajectory, Beck’s biggest fan (Bonamassa has referred to the British legend as the world’s greatest guitarist) retained those down and dirty origins - there was no holding back here, especially, in terms of speed and a host of delirious effects. The raspy lead vocals, alone, were infectious, and to their credit Bonamassa and Fig, who have been performing this one forever, shimmered with confidence until the final measure.
The time machine whizzed us back to the seventh studio album for US Billboard chart topper, ‘Ballad of John Henry’. Against this song’s truculent, instrumental backbone, Bonamassa emitted wails and purrs; the pacing uniquely ebbed and flowed.
Then, as if to reconstruct the ghost of Houdini, Bonamassa wielded his axe over the whining Theremin, officially ushering in the eerily-pitched output. Lucky for us listeners, the astute camera crew focused in on more smoothly articulated runs.
As great as these selects were, I craved more, and after a brief pause, my wish was granted. The great bluesman returned, as did the band. Needless to say, Bonamassa’s most stunning, virtuosic creation, the flamenco-friendly, acoustic ‘Woke Up Dreaming’ unfolded, where the band leader displayed tremendous enthusiasm and skill.
One of Bonamassa’s heroes is Eric Clapton, with whom he performed at the Royal Albert Hall back in 2009. By now, you can probably predict which song followed, and if you can’t, I won’t ruin the surprise. Let’s just say, it was a fantastic, blood-boiling finale.
I can’t recommend this livestream enough. Long-term Jobo fans can revel in memories and dream of seeing the maestro live, once our lives get somewhat back to the new normal. As for the uninitiated, just keep in mind that this one-off event will be a great introduction to Bonamassa’s fluidity, musical sportsmanship and overall musical passion.
‘Love Ain’t a Love Song’
‘Midnight Blues’ (Gary Moore)
(Kevin Shirley, Pete Brown, Joe Bonamassa)
‘Beyond the Silence’
‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’
‘Pain and Sorrow’
‘Miss You, Hate You’
‘Scuttle Buttin’ (Stevie Ray Vaughan)
‘Ballad of John Henry’
Photos by Allison Morgan
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