You might say Joe Bonamassa came to educate as much as entertain when he blew into Blossom Music Center.
The guitar whiz was back in the Buckeye State August 13th for his Three Kings tribute tour, whose itinerary dispenses with barn-burning Bonamassa originals in favor of equally exhilarating classics by legends Freddie King, Albert King, and B.B. King.
Though the titular Kings weren’t blood-related in life, they were bonded by their passion for the blues.
After taking in Bonamassa’s scorching Cuyahoga Falls performance, one might consider him a not-so-distant King relative, too: A guitar guru grandson or string-noodling nephew whose blues panache plants him in the same family tree with those men and their forbears (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, etc.), an heir apparent to the throne of six-string thrills.
Diehard fans will recall that Bonamassa opened for B.B. when he was just a teen (he picked up guitar at age 4).
Now, at 38, Joe’s coming full circle—not that he ever wandered far from his musical roots—by saluting his mentors onstage.
“To put it in perspective, there are more people onstage tonight than there was in the audience when I played the Beachland all those years ago!” said the guitarist on Friday, recalling one of his early Cleveland gigs.
Backed by a 10-piece ensemble, J.B. blazed through twenty-odd tracks in two hours, devoting equal time to works popularized by Freddie, Albert, and B.B. (in that order). And while Joe was definitely the spotlight artist, everyone on stage got his (or her) chance to shine—from the horn players and backup singers to bassist Michael Rhodes and keyboard guru Reese Wynans (of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble).
The sultry singers (clad in black sequin dresses) included Mahalia Barnes, Jade MacCrae, and Juanita Tippins. Together, the ladies contributed to The Sapphires soundtrack in 2012, but each has her own career going. Barnes, who sang a few lines alone, recently teamed with Bonamassa on Ooh Yeah: The Betty Davis Songbook.
Poised behind the ladies at their music stands, the horn men added a bit of Motown magic with their burly brass. Ron Dziubla (Ricky Martin, Los Straitjackets) and Paulie Cerra (Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston) wailed on tenor and alto saxophones. Between them, “Burgermeister of Soul” Lee Thornburg (Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart) tooted on trumpet, incorporating a bit of jazz feel with a muted solo.
Guitarist Kirk Fletcher augmented Joe’s chords on a Les Paul guitar, but he too stepped forward two or three times for impressive excursions of his own. Wynans brought honky-tonk piano flair and Hammond B-3 funk to the proceedings.
Dipping into the Freddie oeuvre first, Joe hit hard with “See See Baby,” “Some Other Day Some Other Time,” and “Lonesome Whistle Blues.” Wearing a dark suit and white shirt (and with his hair slicked into place) the sunglassed Bonamassa tore it up on a Gibson ES-335 (before switching to a goldtop Les Paul), his attack sharp, clean—and loud.
The ladies simulated a train whistle with their woo-oohs, and Barnes belted with Joe for “Sittin’ on the Boat Dock.” The sensual “You’ve Got to Love Her With Feeling” spotlighted Wynan’s churchlike organ skills.
Born in Dallas in 1934 (but raised in Chicago), Freddie “The Texas Cannonball” King took inspiration from Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, and Muddy Waters. Most agree he did his best work in the ‘50s and ‘60s for Federal, Chess, and Shelter Records. He died of pancreatic illness in December 1976.
Freddie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
Bonamassa saved what is arguably Freddie’s best-known track for last: Written in 1969 by Don Nix (for Memphis rockers Moloch), “Going Down” became an in-concert touchstone for guitar heroes (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.) after Freddie’s interpretation.
“Hello, Ohio!” beamed Bonamassa, momentarily slipping off his trademark shades.
The Albert King segment started with the Jerry Beach-penned “I’ll Play the Blues for You” (from Albert’s 1972 album), veered into sizzling rumba “I Get Evil,” and then plunged into the rambunctious “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” Relying on a butterscotch Flying-V guitar (possibly his 1983 Adam Ant model) for the whole of the Albert segement, Joe burned on “Angel of Mercy,” using volume swells on the song’s jazzy intro before depressing his distortion pedal for the earsplitting solo.
Southpaw shredder Albert was born in 1923 in Mississippi but honed his chops in Arkansas. Like Freddie, he was active mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, dropping several releases on the Stax (Born Under a Bad Sign, Lovejoy) and Utopia (Truckload of Lovin’) labels. He died in 1992.
Albert King was a 2013 Rock Hall inductee.
“Cadillac Assembly Line” benefited from Thornburg’s big band solo. Bonamassa’s trip to the Albert altar wrapped with the mournful “Oh, Pretty Woman” (the A.C. Williams tune, not the Roy Orbison hit), which boasted a mini-drum solo by Anton Fig.
Fig—a session ace who for thirty years anchored David Letterman’s in-house TV band—just reissued his solo album, Figments. Years in the making, the 13-song CD was cut at the drummer’s Manhattan apartment with a slew of all-star guests (Richie Havens, Brian Wilson, Ace Frehley, Ivan Neville, etc.), and is available now on Amazon and iTunes.
Fig’s been recording with Bonamassa since 2007, but Three Kings is his first major excursion with Joe (or anyone) since Letterman retired.
If Fig was nervous, it didn’t show. His timing was Swiss-watch accurate, his beats brutal, and his percussive flourishes as fascinating to watch as they were to hear. Parked behind his kit at center stage, the South African-born stickman was the rhythm engine underpinning the guitars, horns, and keys—and delineating meters for Rhodes’ robust bass lines.
Appropriately, the B.B. King set kicked off with the Louis Jordan jump-blues of “Let The Good Times Roll” and funky Stix Hooper entry “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” Bonamassa manhandled a big-bodied black guitar before switching to a sunburst version of the same. Rhodes—who utilized a tobacco-colored four-string during the Albert set—reverted to his white Fender Precision bass.
Born Riley King in Berclair, Mississippi, B.B. King rose out of southern cotton farms and eradicated the color barrier of the ‘50s and ‘60s with his melodic playing on his beloved “Lucille” Gibson guitars.
B.B. was an early Rock Hall inductee (1987) who stayed on the tour circuit up until his passing last May.
The ladies infused B.B.’s “Ole Time Religion” with gospel gusto and complimented Wynans’ poignant piano on “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” (from 1970’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds, an album B.B. recorded with Joe Walsh, Russ Kunkel, and Carole King). “Boogie Woogie Woman” shimmied, but Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird” was slow and celestial.
Joe’s vocals have come a long way over the years, and the young-gun guitarist did a fine job delineating between his singing and string-picking. He really appeared to focus on his verses, standing relatively still at his microphone, guitar idle and left hand hanging slack. But when it was time to power out the pentatonics, he’d crank up and step away from the mic to roam, sweating beading on his brow as his notes rippled and sang through the humid night air.
The encore comprised of one selection apiece by Freddie, Albert, and B.B. The energetic “Hide Away” harkened to Freddie’s 1960 hit, while Booker T.’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” drew from Albert’s 1967 album of the same name.
“The Thrill is Gone” was a powerful (if predictable) finale. Hailing from B.B.’s 1969 platter Completely Well (produced by Bill Szymczyk of Joe Walsh and Michael Stanley fame), the Roy Hawkins staple afforded everyone a final chance to get their yah-yahs out.
It was a memorable show, and we wish more folks had been on hand to witness it. Blossom’s pavilion was nearly full, but the sprawling lawn sat empty in the moonlight. To his credit, Bonamassa and company weren’t bothered by the empty seats: Instead, the gang gave its all, playing to those who’d shown up for them, and seemed to genuinely enjoy doing so.
“I’m the luckiest guy, because I’ve got the greatest band in the world,” effused Joe.
Bonamassa’s most recent studio effort was 2014’s Different Shades of Blue. Also released last year was Live in Amsterdam, a concert set with frequent collaborator Beth Hart.
The New Hartford / Utica native also moonlights in the superstar bands Black Country Communion and Rock Candy Funk. Over the last fifteen years, Bonamassa has recorded or shared stages with Stephen Stills, Steve Winwood, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Foreigner.
Having grown up in his father’s music shop, Joe has a better appreciation than most for vintage instruments: He’s an avid guitar collector, and his nonprofit Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation preserves the music of yesteryear by literally passing it on to today’s kids (they donate guitars and funding for schools).
With Bonamassa making the rounds—and filtering his knowledge onto others—the thrill of blues will never be gone.
And we suspect B.B., Albert, and Freddie are proud of that.