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A Night To Remember With Joe Bonamassa
Joe Bonamassa at the Covelli Center 11/22/14
Tour De Force
The concert bug bit again after a one year hiatus finding multimedia artist Dave Koch and your humble servant out thrill seeking once again on the concert trail. This particular rock & roll adventure took place close to home at the Covelli Center in the heart of downtown Youngstown, Ohio on Saturday November 22nd, 2014. Dave, more of a neo-classical metal enthusiast, took a chance on another VIP venture after hearing of Joe Bonamassa’s legendary concert performances. Having already seen him in concert three times I was newly amazed at his technical ability and innovative musicianship. He just keeps getting better every time I see him. The staccato alternate and economy picking techniques Joe employs in his blues/fusion licks contain Satriani/Gilbert/Petrucci-esque similarities were not lost on Dave Koch, a long time G-3 attendee. Using the excuse of my recent retirement Dave and I opted for VIP-seating and a meet and greet with the nimble fingered phenom. Sometime last summer I concocted a plan to ambush Bonamassa into a video interview for the blog during the meet & greet using my unique Jive Bomber-20 boutique guitar amp as bait. I knew Joe was an audiophile and owned several rare guitar amplifiers including a Van Weelden, 4-Dumbles, a Marshall-2555 Silver Jubliee, Suhr, Diaz and a host of vintage Marshalls and Fenders. My amp, the Jive Bomber-20 utilizes ECL-86 tubes(Matched Telefunkens) which are extremely rare and have a unique tone pallet voiced through a 1956-15” Magnavox speaker. I was sure Joe would jump at the chance to play through it. Wrong! Although he was gracious and friendly at the meet and greet, he looked at the amp with a discriminating eye.
I asked him, “Have you ever played through ECL-86’s?” He said, “No.” but after I told him it was a 1950’s Bogen CHB-20A conversion-mod he flipped it over and asked, “Do you actually plug into this thing without getting electrocuted?”. Whaaat! I play through it all the time! I explained it had a grounded plug, SLO-BLO fuse and was totally modified to modern safety compliance by the builder Mike Sabatini from MGS Sound Technology in Oregon. Perhaps it was the funky combo-cab covered with stickers and cigarette burns that threw him off, although to me, it’s a work of art. At that point the security guy started hurrying us along since we were second in line for the meet & greet with a couple dozen more behind us. Bonamassa quickly signed the amp(Which was my consolation prize) and my book and we were ushered out into the lobby. As Dave & I entered the lobby I was disappointed and thought to myself, You missed an opportunity Joe, when the Tone Genie comes calling, you better be ready thinking he could have invited us backstage after the show and played through it then. The Jive Bomber is the most versatile amp I have ever owned with a variety of tones from bell like clarity on the clean side to a growling distortion with the gain cranked. Later that night I finally came to my senses and realized, anyone that owns 4-Dumbles probably doesn’t feel the need to play through ECL-86’s especially when his name is Joe Bonamassa.
Our seats were slightly stage left in the 4th row. We thought that since Dave was only the second person in line for VIP seats we’d be in the front row. Through the night the seats we had proved to be excellent and our disappointments quickly vanished as Bonamassa came out for a 45-minute acoustic set that tickled all the right aural spots. The acoustic line-up was fabulous with Gerry O’Connor on mandolin, fiddle and banjo. Gerry joined the Tour De Force Tour in 2013 after playing in such bands as Skylark, The Irish Baroque Orchestra, Two Men and a Dog, Lugh and The Irish Rovers.
Mats Wester is a Swedish studio engineer, producer and expert on Sweden’s traditional instrument, the nyckelharpa that added depth and color to the ensemble. The nyckelharpa is a bizarre looking instrument that appeared to be a cross between a sitar, mandolin and bouzouki played with a bow. It’s unique tone added a woody violin/celloish flavor to the acoustic set securing it’s place and validity in the eclectic cadre. According to Joe, people are always asking WTF Mats is playing.
I was pleasantly surprised by Lenny Castro on percussion. His mastery of the congas, djembe, and bodhràn flawlessly held up the bass sections of the acoustic set. Castro employed dozens of percussion instruments from maracas, shakers, tambourines and bells to a chest mounted zydeco washboard played with spoons and hands. Castro’s percussion performance was woven like thread into a wonderful tapestry of acoustic instruments featuring Bonamassa’s guitar virtuosity as it’s centerpiece.
After a brief 10-minute intermission during which I had to restrain Dave from reading the riot act to an inebriated woman in the front row who continued to stand up and dance while he struggled to get good pictures. I felt embarrassed for her husband and sorry for the people sitting behind her in the VIP section. For a minute, when Bonamassa was directly in front of us, we feared she might start stripping which wouldn’t have been a pretty sight for anyone due to her BMI and addled condition. Thankfully we were spared.
Joe came out with a Strat for the electric set but after experiencing some technical problems with the instrument, he switched back to his trusty Les Paul. I heard that he had decided to throw caution to the wind and play Strats and vintage Fender amps exclusively on his most recent album Different Shades of Blue. As a true artist Bonamassa is reaching into the unknown, challenging himself to find diversity and eclectic innovations in the vast expanse of the blues genre. This quest is evidenced in the formation of his neo-funk/jazz group Rock Candy Funk Party featuring singer Beth Hart where he incorporates blues, jazz, funk and fusion into his constantly expanding repertoire. I noticed his amp line-up at the concert was strictly composed of vintage Fenders. I saw what looked to be a Vibrolux, alongside a Super, a Twin and a Deluxe Reverb behind a Plexiglas amp partition. No Dumbles, Van Weeldens, Carol Anns, Ceriatones or Marshalls were present.
Keyboardist Derek Sherinian, dubbed the “Caligula of Keyboards” by Alice Cooper added so much depth and character to the electric set, it made me wonder if the money earned by musicians of this caliber could ever justify their participation or whether the chance to play with a virtuoso like Bonamassa was their true reward. Sherinian assumed his classic pose with hands on hips then a raised fist between two banks of keyboards at the conclusion of his masterful solos. For the honky-tonk piano in Jockey Full Of Burbon Sherinian used an old Fender-Rhodes electric piano from the 1970’s. He also used a vintage Hammond or Wulitzer double keyboard organ for more upbeat pieces.
Carmine Rojas played the bass with the artistry of a sculptor alternating modes with drive, presence and technique second to none. Rojas is a veteran of groups like David Bowie, SRV, Rod Stewart, Julian Lennon, Billy Gibbons, Herby Hancock, BB King and Billy Joel to mention a few. His rock-and-roll tenure proceeds him incorporating Bonamassa into the company of musical legends he has played with.
Tal Bergman rounds out the super group with a drum solo that morphed into a duet with Lenny Castro. The two were perfectly synced and Bergman’s thunderous combinations were the icing on the cake solidifying him as an integral part of the dynamic musical entourage. Bergaman heads up the group Rock Candy Funk Party the aforementioned blues-funk fusion group that Bonamassa has been part of for the last two years. He has played with the likes of Herb Alpert, Chaka Kahn, Billy Idol, Simple Minds and LL Cool-J and was the producer and drummer for Rod Stewart’s, It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook.
The acoustics and PA setup were spot on at the Covelli Center allowing Joe to utilize his volume tweaking method of using the guitar’s volume pot to achieve a saturated crybaby effect. He also used his signature whisper effect silencing the band as he played low volume palm muted runs during songs like Hey Baby and Different Shades of Blue. One of my personal favorites; Story of a Quarryman featured some sparkling technical clean leads and gritty distorted crunch spotlighting the vintage Fender amp capabilities. The tone pallet was full and the performance spectacular. In essence the Tour De Force concert at the Covelli Center in Younstown was nothing less than awe-inspiring as Dave Koch and I witnessed another metamorphosis in the evolution of an American blues icon.
The set list was as follows:
- Dust Bowl
- Jelly Roll
- Different Shades of Blue
- Blacklung Heartache
- Happy Times
- Jockey Full Of Burbon
- Dislocated Boy
- Athens To Athens
- Hey Baby(New Rising Sun)
- Oh Beautiful
- Hidden Charms
- Double Trouble
- Mountain Time
- Who Killed John Henry