Joe Bonamassa falls into familiar blues groove at Riverside Theater
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The blues, as a genre, is unavoidably static—there are only so many ways to slice and dice its characteristic rhythms and chord progressions. A handful of artists in the rock field have come along over the past six decades and found fresh and distinctive ways to reimagine that essence. Joe Bonamassa is not one of them. At a sold-out show Saturday night at the Riverside, the current standard bearer for blues rock stuck determinedly to a stylistic framework carved out by dudes old enough to be his grandfather, with no attempt to capture a piece of that legacy for himself other than riding on sheer physical ability. However, whether intentionally or not, he preempted critics’ attempts at labeling him “unoriginal” by clearly illustrating the long and celebrated blues tradition of ripping off everyone that came before.
The opening mini acoustic set was actually promising; anyone accustomed to the clumsy efforts of most electric shredders to manipulate an unplugged guitar would have been stunned by Bonamassa’s dexterity and style, and throwing in a Tom Waits cover (“Jockey Full Of Bourbon”) never hurts. Pianist Arlen Schierbaum’s occasional solos stood out as the only instances of inspired spontaneity. Ditto for his organ work during the electric set. Bonamassa’s mixture of classical, folk, and rock textures was reminiscent at times of Steve Howe, except without the quirks and subtleties. His fingerwork was impressive, but not necessarily moving.
After five tunes, the lights went down and the musicians crept to their full-band placements for the rip-roaring “Slow Train.” Bonamassa’s electric guitar playing was vigorous, fluid, and painfully predictable; one would be hard-pressed to definitively declare a single solo he played “improvisation.” He certainly threw himself into his performance and came off like a genuine and gracious character, but the notes were rote, paint-by-numbers blues, indebted to the late Gary Moore to the point of flat-out imitation.
The moment of clarity began when the band launched into Moore’s “Midnight Blues.” That song’s cardinal riff is itself a loose bastardization of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which is undoubtedly a slight alteration on a rudimentary melody from the ’40s that may or may not have materialized out of thin air. The next tune was Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin,’” but the largely middle-aged crowd could be forgiven for thinking they heard the nearly identical “Whole Lotta Love” riff. The notion of intellectual property rights is playing out in scripted fashion, night after night, on this tour.
The highlight of the electric set was “Young Man Blues,” a song that can never quite slip out of timeliness. It was immortalized on The Who’s Live At Leeds, but it was written by Mose Allison as a one-and-a-half-minute, guitar-less jazz/blues ditty—he could never have fathomed Pete Townshend’s proto-metal manhandling of the song, which Bonamassa blatantly yet lovingly mimicked. Fine, so maybe nothing in music can ever be truly original again. It’s still a bummer that a fellow as talented and genial as Bonamassa still hasn’t stumbled into a recognizable style of his own after playing guitar since he was eight years old. The atmosphere of this show was pure ’70s, and no matter which guitar Joe was handed, it sounded like Peter Frampton’s Les Paul. Even without “Baby, I Love Your Way,” it was that familiar, comfy dino-rock feeling that sold all those tickets.