Joe Bonamassa left behind a vaudeville-era venue full of dropped jaws by the time he stepped off the stage after his May 17 concert at downtown’s Landmark Theatre. He changed his guitars like underwear throughout the 2 1/2-hour show and made each ax sing, cry or rock with incredible precision and perfect, clear-cutting tone.
Flawless in technique, Bonamassa, widely dubbed as a “guitar god,” took listeners on a jaunt through blues riff heaven, but with a critical piece missing from the otherwise spotless performance: love.
Bonamassa, a guitar prodigy who was slammin’ Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan chords at age 7, was home at the Landmark. Raised in Utica, he was surrounded by friends and family in the theater after his many globetrotting gigs over the past 12 years as the latest string-ripping titan.
But when Bonamassa performs, as he bounds across the stage with heavy footsteps that burst with an air of egotism at each stomp, something’s not quite right. For starters, there is no sense of band camaraderie, nor is there any sense of paid-your-blues-dues pain coming through his fingers, let alone fiery passion.
It’s apparent that Bonamassa, now age 35, has spent his whole life only playing guitar, and he has become accustomed to the only thing he knows. Yet he lacks the humanity, something absolutely crucial to the blues.
At the Landmark he seemed to forget that music is only partially notes performed on an instrument or words strung out on a melodic line. Music is also a communicator of a feeling with an audience, an interaction, a conversation, and that those listeners are hanging onto every word and every bending note. Bonamassa has a message and the means to share it, but the emotional disconnect was evident throughout the Syracuse show.
“Slow Train” pumped through speakers promptly at 8 p.m. to start the concert. Bonamassa’s vocal acrobatics, strikingly strong for a musician primarily known as a guitarist, often left his listeners stunned. Still, it was his guitar work that took them from dumbfounded to weak in their knees.
With stacks of Marshall speakers behind him, as well as a crushed velvet, color-changing backdrop, Bonamassa laid into his riffs. He allowed his band—Hammond B3/keys player Rick Melick; drummer Tal Bergman and bassist Carmine Rojas—to serve mostly as a backing track. Bonamassa roared above their instruments, demonstrating why he is considered the guitar genius of a generation, and threw near-metal shreds into his gutsy blues rockers. Eerie smoke billowed from the stage and filtered through rotating stage lights, adding a tinge of mystery to the performance, with Bonamassa cementing that vibe with dark sunglasses hiding his eyes.
He channeled guitar greats such as Jimmy Page through songs like “Dust Bowl,” “Sloe Gin” and “The Ballad of John Henry,” yet did it with a sound of his own. He’s not as abrasive or effects-heavy as Hendrix or gritty as Vaughan, but something separate, with clean and deft control of the fretboard guiding his note-driven journey. Although much of the show was loud and aggressive, the volume never reached a point of discomfort for listeners.
After a substantial chunk of the show passed, Bonamassa finally revealed his local connection to the audience: back when he was a kid on the Central New York music scene, especially his first gig at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que on Nov. 11, 1989. The crowd laughed when Bonamassa explained that he had to patiently mark time until the final Dino diner finished before he could start setting up for the performance.
“You’re gonna wait your turn, son,” the hungry customer growled when Bonamassa tried to get his gear to the stage. “So we did, and we kicked ass and here we are now,” Bonamassa said.
He kept the face-melting consistent when he cut into “Dislocated Boy,” a vicious blues jam with lines about a rowdy bar fight and “knuckles on the floor.” It’s the first track on his new album Driving Towards the Daylight (J&R Adventures), released on May 22. The audience finally had a chance to hear keyboardist Melick take off on the tune, but the solo was fleeting as “Smokin’ Joe” took the sound reigns back after only a few ivory-filled bars.
Bonamassa made it a point to acknowledge several people in the audience: his parents, local harp player and WAER-FM 88.3 radio host Tom Townsley, and especially Mike Grimaldi, a.k.a. “Midnite Mike,” the guitar teacher that gave him a chance by allowing the young Bonamassa to take over his band during a long-ago set. With the tables turned, Bonamassa allowed Grimaldi to share the Landmark stage. Alas, Bonamassa kept dominating the night with his heavy lines until Grimaldi had a few spaces for solos.
The teacher-student relationship became apparent as the two styles shared a thread of similarity: Bonamassa went along the clean, quick, assaulting lines, while Grimaldi stuck to the grittier, warmer, fuzzed sound of an older blues era. The master aligned with the dark edge while the pupil sought bright, attention-grabbing flits around the frets. Yet they eventually came together to hit their groove, securing themselves on the same wavelength.
Bonamassa hit his stride on the lush “Blues Deluxe,” with lyrics that require a powerful punch of passion to get the point across: “I don’t know too much about love baby now/ But I sure think I got it bad, yeah.” He delivered the song with utter conviction; it was the most human he seemed all night, absolutely shredding the final vocal lines, practiced to perfection.
The night continued with one blistering solo after another and animated exchanges between drummer Bergman and Bonamassa, although the skin-hitter couldn’t quite handle the avenues that the guitarist was exploring. But the highlight came when the band members left the stage, leaving Bonamassa alone with his beautiful acoustic guitar and the song “Woke Up Dreaming”. He extracted seemingly impossible sounds from the instrument; dynamics wound loud and soft, slowed down and sped up to “Flight of the Bumblebee”-level fast. Bonamassa proved that he could even shred an acoustic.
It’s no wonder that Bonamassa has made his way up the ranks and onto the magazine covers of Guitar World and Guitarist. But there’s room for him to grow in ways less limited by strings and more amplified by emotion. Bonamassa is the type of skillful player that can do it all, but finding the right motivation to do so is necessary. There are reports that whenever he’s joined by his musical brothers in Black Country Communion, there is a different dynamic on the stage – the camaraderie and respect that was lacking at the Landmark.
Bonamassa is a musical force; he’s powerful, practiced and tough to keep up with. Maybe when he finds players who are equally adept on both tactical and emotional levels, we might have some musicmaking that could land in the history books like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, B.B. King or Jimi Hendrix. The Landmark concert was musically impressive, but not musically moving, which is what the blues is all about. The talent is there, but it won’t be until the passion really hits that Bonamassa could be king of the world.