I haven’t really done a Joe Bonamassa album review on the blog yet, and I thought – why not start with something unusual? How about a little bit of acoustic blues-rock in Vienna? So here I am, writing about An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, one of my all-time favorite albums ever released by Joe Bonamassa, acoustic or otherwise. And man, if there was a show I wish I had personally attended, it sure is this one. For starters, I’d be in Vienna, a treat in its own right, and at the stunning Opera House no less. Second, an all-acoustic blues-rock show with Joe Bonamassa is the rarest of scarce treats. I mean, will I ever get a chance to see something like this live? Who knows…? Third, the quality of the show is just completely off the charts from start to finish, which is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to this album over and over and over again.
I’ve always found myself drawn to acoustic music which is probably why this album has tugged at me so hard over the years. When I was first getting into music in the mid-1990’s, many of my favorite artists of the time prominently featured acoustic guitar in their music or were being featured acoustically on MTV: bands and artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, Radiohead and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. It wasn’t until later that I really fell in love with what the electric guitar could do; especially Jimi Hendrix, but also Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, David Gilmour, and a host of others. Eventually, of course, I came to Joe Bonamassa and had my mind blown. But when I first listened to An Acoustic Evening. it was like coming full circle for me in a way.
Part of what makes this album so special is that it really highlights what a good all around musician Joe is. Yes, he’s a guitar phenom and virtuoso, and that’s the number one reason many of us listen to him. But he’s so much more than that. He’s a tasteful, sweet-voiced, singer. He can create mood and tone colors with minimal amounts of effects. He’s also a great songwriter, which he demonstrated fully on his latest studio release Different Shades of Blue, but is more than self-evident here as you scroll through the tracklist and see how many of the songs he either wrote or co-wrote. There’s also an extraordinary breadth of genre covered on here. Sure, this is a blues-rock album, and yet it’s filled with elements of country, folk, and straight up rock. The heavy hard rock hitters like “The Ballad of John Henry” are of course stripped down and mellowed during this performance, but they are still as emotionally hard hitting as ever.
So what are my four favorite things about this stunning album? Joe Bonamassa An Acoustic Evening, how do I love thee, let me count the ways!
1. It demonstrates that Joe Bonamassa is as masterful at the acoustic guitar as he is on the electric.
Joe is basically an electric player. And the two instruments, while very similar, are not identical obviously. There have been incredible acoustic guitarists who can’t do a whole lot with an electric guitar, and there have been electric players that play with the fire of a thousand suns but don’t know how to translate that to the subtlety and physicality that an acoustic guitar requires. Joe reveals on here, without any shred of a doubt, that he is, more than anything, a guitarist pure and simple. He can play the hell out of a guitar regardless of it’s acoustic or electric modality. And he doesn’t play them the same way, which would undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on one or the other. He shreds on electric like a mad bluesman, and he allows the full subtlety of an acoustic guitar to come out and shine. It truly goes to show that there’s nothing this man can’t do with that beloved instrument that we’ve come to call guitar. Right away you can hear this on Joe’s opener of the evening, the original composition “Palm Trees, Helicopters, and Gasoline.” The playing is percussive, full-bodied, intricate, and everything you’d want from a solo blues-rock piece for acoustic guitar.
2. It highlights the sweetness of Joe Bonamassa’s underrated vocals.
The electric guitar is so muscular and arena-shaking that often it takes some of the thunder away from Joe’s singing. But Joe can’t find a place to hide his voice when he’s simply playing acoustic: it’s all there, stark naked and unaltered (that’s right, no autotune for a Joe show!) But this is a great thing, because it exposes just how smooth and gorgeous Joe’s vocals can be. You don’t have to wait long to hear this – right away on the album’s third track, “Jelly Roll” the sweetness of the title object is reflected in the tastiness of Joe’s singing.
3. Joe was an amazing songwriter long before Different Shades of Blue.
The leaner and more raw arrangements of Joe’s original material allow the brilliance of the songwriting itself to shine through the music. Songs like “Dust Bowl,” “Athens to Athens” and “The Ballad of John Henry” reveal themselves as not just vehicles for virtuosic blues soloing, but as incredible creations in their own right, simply as songs. Perhaps no album prior to Different Shades got this point across so perfectly and succinctly.
4. The acoustic band Joe uses is unbelievable – and plays really cool instruments!
I feel that it’s not right to discuss this album without mentioning the brilliant musicians that fill out Joe’s acoustic band, and the really funky instruments that they play. Gerry O’Connor on Irish Banjo and Fiddle, Mats Wester on Nyckelharpa and Mandola, Arlan Schierbaum on Harmonium, Accordion, Baby Piano, and Glockenspiel, and last but not least Lenny Castro on percussion fill out the arrangements remarkably well and the musicians contribute some stunning solos of their own that are very worthy of appearing on a Joe Bonamassa album.
Gosh, I wanted to say more but it’s time to bring this article to a close. Perhaps a sequel might be in the works. In the meantime, I encourage you to pick up your copy of An Acoustic Evening – or get one if you don’t have it yet, and listen to this magical record as much as possible. It seriously gets better with every single play.
– Brian R.
To get your copy of An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, click here. There’s a cool related tee as well!
To check out my previous post on acoustic vs. electric sets, click here.
Interested in more on blues history? Check out the Keeping the Blues Alive blog here!
And it happens to be acoustic week over at Tribut! Read the articles and browse the merch here!