Live At The Greek Theatre

Joe Bonamassa

J&R Adventures, 2016

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


I saw a recent Guitar World poll, I believe, where the magazine writers had voted for its top 50 guitar players of all time on one side and its readers had done the same. The lists were similar, expectedly, but a significant entry on the fan side not on the writer side was Joe Bonamassa.

Why more critics haven’t caught on to this guy is beyond me. You can’t really find a bad review of the guy’s work. Moreover, when you discover him, you like him, simple as that. Fans know this and they turn out to his shows, buy his records, keep him doing what he’s doing (and Bonamassa recognizes this, to his credit). But let’s get to the point: Joe is one hell of a guitar player, whether covering his idols or writing his superb originals. A child prodigy and now a bluesman of the highest order, Bonamassa since 2006 has consistently turned out great electric blues albums that deserve to make any critic’s Top 20 list of their given year.

In recent years, though, Bonamassa has taken to releasing a large quantity of live albums, usually at storied locations, almost to the point of overkill. Given that his 2016 release Blues Of Desperation was so damn good, I had high expectations for Live At The Greek Theatre…until I saw the track listing. Rather than play his originals, or a mix of originals and blues standards, this double-disc is nothing but covers of old time-honored blues classics.

Specifically, the 21 live cuts belong to “The Three Kings” – that is, Albert, Freddie, and B.B., three master bluesmen who Bonamassa learned much from (in B.B.’s case, it was more of a teacher/student relationship, as the veteran took the young guy under his wing). The setlist is roughly divided equally between Albert’s songs, then Freddie’s, then B.B.’s, then an encore with one favorite from each.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

For casual blues fans, most of the songs won’t be all that familiar except maybe the closing “The Thrill Is Gone,” which is a plus. And although the language of the blues was written by the masters long ago, including the three Kings, Bonamassa is serious about making it sound fresh, vital and loud, and so every song here crackles with energy and soul and life. If you didn’t know these were covers, you could imagine many of them on one of his studio records.

Yet something feels out of place a bit; not in the playing by any means, nor the energy level of the crowd and band, but that fact that these songs are not originals. They are blues covers, the type that bar band after boogie band after garage band has done since the British Invasion, and there’s very little left to say. You can make the solos longer, you can add some saxophone, you can ratchet up the volume, but you’re still saying what Freddie and Albert and B.B. already said so long ago.

Furthermore, the Albert King portion of the show just isn’t all that exciting; well played, to be sure, and fun, but not likely to leave a lasting impression. It isn’t until the end of disc one – the trifecta of “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” “Angel Of Mercy,” and “Cadillac Assembly Line” – where somebody snaps on the Awesome Switch and the roiling undercurrent explodes in flash of guitar and keyboard solos, all in service of the song, of course. “Oh, Pretty Woman” (not the Roy Orbison pop song) also gets a fantastic, energetic treatment.

The first disc prior to the three highlights mentioned all start to sound about the same, but after “Pretty Woman” things start to diversify, with the gospel flourish of “Ole Time Religion,” the soul underpinnings of “Let The Good Times Roll,” the aptly-named “Boogie Woogie Woman,” and the blues/church workout of “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother.” Not surprisingly, this stretch of the record is all B.B. King songs, and Bonamassa’s passion for respect for his mentor shines through here.

His take of “Hummingbird,” originally written by Leon Russell, is stretched out to 10 minutes and goes on about four minutes too long but feels appropriately epic, while “Hide Away” is an efficient and fun instrumental (watch for the “Peter Gunn”-style breakdown in the middle). “The Thrill Is Gone,” perhaps the most obvious pick here, nevertheless gets played with flair and guitar pyrotechnics, abetted by backing vocals (Mahalia Barnes, Juanita Tippins, and Jade MacRae really add depth to the second disc) and growling tenor sax punches. The disc closes with a studio version of “Riding With The King,” adding an S to King to make it appropriate for the theme.

Live At The Greek is technically impressive and a hell of a show, like any other Bonamassa disc, but fans may lament the lack of originals since the artist has proven his songwriting chops over and over. Moreover, the lackluster first disc (compared to the fire and variety of the second) probably won’t warrant many repeated listens except to the faithful…and since they’re pretty much the only kind of Bonamassa fans that exist, this record will be a pleasure.

Rating: B

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