Who is your favorite guitar player? If you were at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center recently, there is a good chance you’re now mentioning a name unfamiliar to most people, Joe Bonamassa.
Despite not having a radio hit or being mentioned in a mainstream music publication, he is a guitar god. With three signature Les Pauls to his credit, Bonamassa is not unfairly referred to as a “blues titan” and “the next Stevie Ray.” His core fan base is comprised of blues fanatics and guitar aficionados. That demographic is likely to broaden when his newest effort, Driving Towards the Daylight. With special guests Brad Whitford (Aerosmith) and drummer Anton Fig, it is more heavily infused with rock than the rest of his 12 album catalog. It may finally bring him the crossover stardom to which he has always been ambivalent. Much like his best of album title, No Hits, No Hype, Just the Best, a Bonamassa stage setup is as basic as it gets; multiple six foot Marshall stacks, a drum kit fit for the likes of Copeland and Peart and limited effects save for a smoke machine and minimal lighting.
He opened with the scorching “Slow Train” from last year’s No. 1 album, “Dust Bowl.” It starts with the lumbering chug of a freighter that slowly increases in tempo until it reaches full speed. An early highlight was the only true mellow number of the night, a soulful cover of Gary Moore’s “Midnight Blues.” Drummer Tai Bergman provided a slow, tribal beat on the toms while Bonamassa painted delicate tones high up on the neck. From that point on, Bonamassa’s foot stayed on the gas as he put on a clinic showcasing his blazing speed, smooth textures and ear splitting decibel levels. The auditory assault began with “Dust Bowl.” To the delight of the crowd, it featured a frenetic speed duel with Bergman. Bonamassa plays Gibson exclusively, mostly the Les Paul. His albums lend themselves to its heavy sound. However, in a live setting, it can be overbearing and one dimensional. This was most evident during the lengthy jams on “Sloe Gin” and “The Ballard of John Henry.”
The show’s pace was frantic at times, with extended solos and little space between songs. In fact, without Bergman’s raised arm cues, it was sometimes hard to tell where one number ended and the next began. Even his acoustic solo, where the band took a well-earned break, was performed at breakneck speed. Bonamassa has said that he has become more interested in nuance and controlling pace. “I don’t even think I can play as fast as I used to and I wouldn’t want to even if I could,” he said. If he has slowed down at all, the difference can only be measured in nanoseconds. There is nothing subtle about a Bonamassa show. It is a two hour sonic meth bender that is both a purist’s dream and a casual music fan’s indoctrination by fire to the world of modern blues with arguably the genre’s best player.