Joe Bonamassa is a guitar phenomenon. This is no less true when he’s on an acoustic guitar than it is when he’s playing an electric. Joe is known for his absolutely smoking electric solos, but his acoustic playing is amazing artistry in its own right. Of course, the two are not the same. Joe, for example, has talked about how playing an acoustic set makes him have to focus on his singing in a different way. This is because he’s not generally playing the kinds of extended solos he plays during electric sets that give his voice plenty of time to rest. There’s also much more volume to compete with. From an audience standpoint, an acoustic set is an entirely different vibe – it brings you in so close to the music and to the artist. It feels as if instead of music being explosively pushed out from the stage to the audience, it seductively pulls you in towards the band, drawing you closer and immersing you in the playing. Almost as if you were on stage. So with Joe no longer playing the acoustic sets for his 2015 tour, I wanted to write some thoughts about his decision to go back to the full electric show. But first, a little history!
Acoustic vs. electric used to be a big deal in music. Like a very big deal. Of course, the most music historically famous battle of the “pure vs. plugged” manifested itself in the form of a mêlée between Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Most music fans know something of the story, but let’s revisit what happened. When Bob Dylan came to the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, he was already a folk music superstar. Almost 100,000 people awaited the arrival of their royal hero to the stage, and the anticipation almost overwhelmed the crowd. But something unexpected happened that day. Dylan came out with a full band, including members of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but the band was not the only thing that Dylan brought on stage with him. In his hands was not the trusty acoustic guitar that he ordinarily wielded, but instead was a brightly shining electric Fender Stratocaster. As Dylan started to strum the seemingly innocuous instrument, a wave of terror spread throughout part of the crowd. While half the crowd praised the adulated star, the other half started to boo and jeer as if he had just set a picture of Gandhi on fire. Bob Dylan was betraying the staunchly acoustic purity of the folk music scene, and an outcry was being raised. Here’s a picture of the offending artifact:
The horror!!! Not only were people in the audience belligerent and hostile, but legend has it (somewhat dubiously, admittedly) that festival organizer and folk legend Pete Seeger was so enraged that he ran around backstage with an axe threatening to hack the power chords to death. It sounds like a scene out of a Friday the 13th movie except with guitar power chords as the recipient of Jason’s brandished steel.
Well, things have calmed down some since that raucous day, and now a folk musician playing a wailing and frenzied electric guitar solo is about as pedestrian an event as a grunge star sitting quietly on her stool to strum a stripped down acoustic version of her greatest mega-hit. But the idea of an “acoustic setlist” still has an air of mystery and enticement about it: they excite us because for many artists they are a truly special occasion, as it was when Joe played acoustically.
My first exposure to Joe playing an acoustic set was watching An Acoustic Evening At the Vienna Opera House – and what a treat that was! Knowing what the man can do on an electric guitar, it was so much fun to hear him perform such a stripped down, intimate, and radically distinct kind of performance. Truthfully, I’ve always been drawn to lots of acoustic music, from early Bob Dylan to Neil Young, to watching the MTV Unplugged concerts on MTV growing up such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. It was amazing to hear some of my favorite Bonamassa tunes in this kind of incredibly re-imagined arrangement: songs like the heart-tugging “Sloe Gin,” the in-your-face “Ballad of Joe Henry” and the jazz-tinged Tom Waits cover “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” The DVD also made me newly fall in love with other songs like the gorgeous “From the Valley” and the expressive, soaring Bad Company cover “Seagull.” So, to say the least, I’m a huge fan of the acoustic setlist,
I think playing two sets, one of each kind of timbre, is really unique, exciting, and special. How many other musical acts open up their own shows with full acoustic setlists? Another artist I like, Dave Matthews Band, has done it recently, but I can’t think of too many others that do it too often. It’s basically getting two shows for the price of one by an artist you love – what could possibly be better?!
On the other hand, Joe is first and foremost an electric guitarist and that’s the kind of music that’s made him into the huge blues megastar that he is. The acoustic sets are astonishing, but if he played them every tour, I think it would start to lose a lot of its freshness and intrigue. Further, going back to the full electric evening leaves room for more incredible solos and the kind of music that originally made me fall in love. So while I will miss the acoustic sets to some extent, it is far outweighed by how excited I am for what’s to come this year. After all, if Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks is any indication, we are in for some mind blowing three kings music. And I know that as soon as I hear Joe play his first electric note this Spring, missing the acoustic setlist will be the furthest thing from my mind!
– Brian R.
How much did you love Joe’s acoustic sets? Are you excited to hear Joe get back to his full electric roots this year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
To purchase Joe Bonamassa’s An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House click here.
To purchase Joe Bonamassa’s Tour de Force – Live In London (Hammersmith Apollo) click here.
To pre-order Joe Bonamassa’s Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks click here.
For tour dates and to purchase tickets, click here.