Artist: Joe Bonamassa
Venue: First Direct Arena, Leeds
Date: 12 May 2023
As we left the arena, one of the stewards said to us, “That was amazing, the best show I’ve seen in two years working here!” High praise indeed.
Joe Bonamassa has come a long way since I first saw him perform at the Holmfirth Picturedrome, back in 2007, and then the even smaller venue, The Plug in Sheffield, a year later. Twelve months on, the guitar maestro started on his upward trajectory to superstardom with a sold-out show at the Sheffield City Hall. I have to admit that as much as I enjoyed his performance, I felt Bonamassa looked a little lost on the larger stage. For the latter reason, this was the first time I’d seen him perform in fifteen years, although I’ve kept up with most of his studio output; prolific is an understatement in terms of his releases - you would need to build an extension to your house to accommodate his studio albums, live releases, collaborations, and DVD’s.
When we were shown to our seats, I was amazed to find we were only five rows back on the end of a row, which is perfect for my good self. However, after five minutes I was asked if we would swap seats by a gentleman and his rather large brother, to which I agreed. The happy punters were delighted and insisted on buying me a beer despite my protestations. Although the latter was a very kind gesture, it meant I spent most of the show desperate for the loo. I managed to hold out until the drum solo during the final song of the main set!
Although not full to its thirteen-thousand capacity, there were still several thousand in attendance this evening. The horseshoe shape of the Leeds First Direct Arena means that not only can empty areas be sectioned off, but virtually everyone gets an interrupted view of the stage.
Bonamassa strolled on to stage with his six-piece band and launched into ‘Evil Mama’ and I was immediately blown away by the clarity of the sound, often one of the major bugbears of arena shows. The lighting was simple, but effective, and I would say I could see the whites of Joe’s eyes, but that would not be true as he was wearing his trademark sunglasses, which is due to light sensitivity, and not a fashion statement. The crowd for the most part was impeccably behaved with only a few venturing to the bar, and hardly anyone talking during the songs. However, one guy bizarrely decided to walk all the way down our row halfway through the performance, despite there being no empty seats.
The first half of the show, there was very little inter-song interaction with the audience, Bonamassa and his band preferring to let the music do the talking. The aforementioned ‘Evil Mama’, ‘Dust Bowl’ and ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ got the show off to a solid start, but it went up a whole different level with the awesome ‘Self Inflicted Wounds’ and ‘Heart That Never Waits’, the latter really showcasing the effectiveness of backing singers Dannielle De Andrea and Jade McCrae, who looked amazing in their black, velvet trouser suits. They kept perfect time, dancing and providing fantastic backing vocals throughout the two-hours plus set.
The rest of his band comprised of the sensational rhythm section of drummer Lamar Carter and bassist Calvin Turner, plus living legend Reese Wyans, part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band Double Trouble. The final member was guitarist Josh Smith, who Bonamassa graciously introduced as the best guitarist on stage. Smith even got to play a few solos including a great one during ‘Conversation With Alice’. All of these musicians are world class, but they must have the same feeling as any footballer who plays alongside Lionel Messi.
The Otis Rush cover ‘Double Trouble’ is more suited to a smoky bar, but it was pulled off to perfection this evening in the arena setting. Following the rocking ‘Didn’t Think She Would Do It’, Bonamassa took several minutes to introduce his wonderfully talented band. He also mentioned the great British weather; it was bloody freezing in Leeds in mid-May!
‘Happier Times’ was transcendent, and you could hear a pin drop during the solo, so mesmerised were the audience. The extended version of ‘Lonely Boy’ turned into a jam session, which included one of many guitar changes throughout the thirteen-song set.
I’m a Rock fan with a love of the Blues. I think that the majority of the fans in attendance were out-and-out Blues enthusiasts; however, for the cover of ZZ Top’s ‘Just Got Paid’, Bonamassa on his Gibson Flying V, unleashed his Rock God persona; not Billy Gibbons, but he went all Jimmy Page!
After leaving the stage for a couple of minutes, Bonamassa returned and thanked the crowd for coming out and stated how he was pleased to be “Live In Leeds” again. He said that fourteen years ago, he encored with this song at the Royal Albert Hall, and from that time everything changed; therefore, there was only one song to finish with this evening, the jaw-dropping ‘Mountain Time’. I felt shivers run through my body as Joe began the quiet intro, which built to the tumultuous climax.
As we left the arena, one of the stewards said to us, “That was amazing, the best show I’ve seen in two years working here!” High praise indeed. This was one of those very rare occurrences, a near-perfect arena show, and that’s despite the exclusion of many of my personal favourite songs, ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’, ‘Sloe Gin’, ‘Mind’s Eye’ and ‘Loyal Kind’. The latter just goes to show what a phenomenal back-catalogue the guitar maestro can draw upon.
You may have noticed I refrained from commenting too much on Bonamassa’s solos. Needless to say, they were executed to perfection, with every inch of the fretboard utilised. Just pick up a Thesaurus and simply look up synonyms of sublime. Last week we had a concert to celebrate the coronation of the new King of the United Kingdom and fourteen Commonwealth countries. This evening we had a concert to celebrate Joe Bonamassa, King of the Blues.
Set list: Evil Mama / Dust Bowl / Love Ain’t A Love Song / Self Inflicted Wounds / Heart That Never Waits / Shout About It / Double Trouble / Didn’t Think She Would Do It / Conversation With Alice / Happier Times / Lonely Boy / Just Got Paid
Encore: Mountain Time
Review: Mark Donnelly Photos: Adam Kennedy