It’s rare to see a someone use an inanimate object to create something of jaw-dropping wonder. Especially in a live setting where there isn’t the ability to ask for a do-over in case you get it wrong. Laurence Olivier was an amazing actor, but if he muffed a line on a movie set they could always shoot another take. Olivier on stage was a totally different experience; the enunciation or turn of a phrase could give the audience goosebumps or, adversely, cringe if he, gods forbid, might miff a line in front of a packed house.
The Connor Palace was a cringe-free zone last night when virtuoso Joe Bonamassa gave the packed house a master class in guitar playing.
“I’ve been coming to Cleveland for a very long time,” Bonamassa reminded the crowd early in the set. “I would come and play at the Beachland Tavern,” he said as he plugged the erstwhile venue in the Waterloo District of Cleveland’s east side. “I came in a white cargo van full of amps and hope.”
Bemoaning the size of the early Cleveland crowds, he thanked the “nine people who showed up at those early gigs.” Receiving a hearty chorus of approval from the crowd, he followed that up with a playful smile. “Then,” he said, “I graduated to the Beachland Ballroom where you all showed up in the tens.”
He’s come a long way since those early days. Last night’s audience spent a good deal of the show on its feet listening to some Blues offered up by Bonamassa and a stellar backing band. Drummer Anton Fig, who spent almost thirty years with The Late Show with David Letterman, kept the rhythm from behind the kit. Keyboardist Reese Wynans is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble. Bassist Michael Rhodes was born in Louisiana and has both Cajun rhythm and the Blues running in his veins. Trumpeter Lee Thornburg played stints as a member of both Tower of Power and Supertramp.
If that’s not a pedigree then I don’t know what is.
The eight-member outfit started the evening off with a quartet of tunes from last year’s album Blues of Desperation. “This Train” was a rocking anthem that really kicked off the night. “Mountain Climbing” was a great segue that showcased Bonamassa’s fingering style. “Blues of Desperation” and “No Good Place for the Lonely” were the other two offerings from the record.
Playing for a little over two hours, the band never showed signs of slowing down. Although they only played fourteen songs (Blues songs can go on for quite awhile, and even if they seem like an extended jam session they were tight, well-rehearsed compositions), each tune was a little different from the one before. “Slow Train,” a mid-set offering, was a particular standout. As the arrangement built to a crescendo, Bonamassa’s prodigious fingering brought the house to a hushed quiet. This is one of those moments where the ever-so-animated guitar player and his axe became one; it reminded me of that scene in Revenge of the Sith when Yoda takes his miniature lightsaber and opens up a can of whoop ass on Palpatine. Maybe you had to be there last night to get the analogy, but just give yourself a visual of the big-eared dwarf bouncing off the walls with a lit inanimate object to understand the next-level shit that Bonamassa pulled off. It wasn’t lost on the crowd, and when I have to use a Star Wars reference to describe what I witnessed last night, then it must have been pretty cosmic.
There are very few guitar players that can inspire such reverence. Bonamassa, at such a young age, is already drawing comparisons to the greats that he emulated in his youth. Imagine where he and his reputation will be in thirty years?
I may not have been at those early Beachland Tavern shows, but I’ll be able to look back and tell people that I was there…a long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, listening to a guitar god with the skills of a six-string slingin’ Jedi Master.