On October 2nd, 2015, a new Joe Bonamassa album was released: Joe Bonamassa – Live at Radio City Music Hall. This was very exciting, because Radio City Music Hall is one of those venues. You know, the legendary ones; the ones that everybody knows. This is an incredibly special release to Joe, who is a native New Yorker from the city of Utica, upstate. This is not the first time that a Bonamassa family member has played the vaunted hall. There have been four generations of musicians in Joe’s family. A photo in the liner notes shows a young “Buddha” Bonamassa playing with The Mickey Caleo Orchestra at the theatre during the roaring 20’s. The photo was hung over the Joe’s parents’ piano, proudly displaying the accomplishment. We think they must be pretty proud of Joe too.
Growing up on Long Island, Radio City Music Hall was one of my “home” venues. It was a short and exciting hour and a half trip to get there all told, between a ride on the Long Island railroad to New York Penn Station and then a short hop on the subway for two or three stops to arrive at 47th Street and 6th Avenue – Rockefeller Center. Just a short hop from Times Square, the vibe is completely different, almost far from the maddening crowd. The passerby’s are largely business people not tourists, working in the skyscrapers that dot up and down 6th Avenue in Midtown, stopping for lunch at Halal carts and sitting along the edges of the sparkling fountains for a quick cigarette.
Radio City stands right in the center of all this, bordering the immense Christmas Tree and shimmering ice skating rink that are, for me, the hallmarks of the holiday season in New York City, my favorite city. This is home to me. And I’ve seen many shows at the iconic Radio City Music Hall. I missed school to see the Rockettes with their mesmerizing synced up legs as just a little kids. I saw a live performance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complete with a mid-afternoon stop for a steaming hot New York City slice of pizza. As I got older, it was no longer the Rockettes, but rather rock bands. Instead of Leonardo and Michelangelo, it became Jack White and Tori Amos and Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds. Some of my all-time favorite shows were played right in that building.
It is thrilling when Joe plays an iconic venue, whether it’s the Greek in Los Angeles or Royal Albert Hall in London. But this is different for me, because this is my building, my hometown. In my head, that’s what success in music has always looked like – playing inside those four walls. To me, this is as big as the blues could get. But then again, who knows? Perhaps the sky is the limit. Nevertheless, it’s quite an achievement to play this storied hall and I can understand Joe’s excitement at being able to play the building for the very first time. It was a great weekend for the blues and it was a great weekend for Joe Bonamassa.
The album is a crystal clear and faithful record of the music that was played by Joe at Radio City Music Hall. It boasts an excellent mix of material. For starters, there are two fantastic new songs, “One Less Cross to Bear” and “Still Water.” “One Less Cross to Bear” is a rousing jilted lover blues written by Joe with James House, complete with a heavy blues-rock riff and boasting a strong as steel melody. The electric band gets to solo around and Joe’s turn on guitar is particularly driving and penetrating. “Still Water” is a cover of a song I’ve long been a fan of, super-producer and recording artist Daniel Lanois. Joe’s take on this haunting tune relies less on atmosphere and takes a more direct rock approach which is great – the song is thoroughly Bonamassa-ized and rocks hard. Both of these are definitely most welcome additions to the live repertoire and I really hope to hear them at my next JB shows.
In addition to the 2 brand new tunes, there are 7 tracks on the album that have never had a live release before, mostly from Joe’s last studio effort, Different Shades of Blue. The DSOB tracks sound wonderful live, especially one that steadily risen on my personal charts as a favorite from that release, “Living on the Moon” a solo from Joe that could more steam rise from the city streets, the pavement melt, and hot dogs in vendor carts spontaneously start to cook. “Never Give All Your Heart” adds a haunting intro before launching into the main song, with subtle percussion from Lenny Castro enhancing the song’s fundamental groove. “Happier Times,” an acoustic track from the show’s first half, has a bit of a sprawling, epic feel to it like the best acoustic Led Zeppelin songs tend to do. It’s densely layered and features harmonically radiant solos on piano, played by Reese Wynans and Joe. Another acoustic track, “Different Shades of Blue” really takes on a new flavor without its original electric arrangement: changing the feel dramatically, it may have less raw power but a much more intimate feel for the song, which really works for it.
Right from the first moment of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” the album shifts seamlessly between its upbeat, electric rockers and the stripped down, melodically nuanced acoustic numbers, and shows once again how ably Joe is able to make the transition from a B.B. King-styled electric blues rocker like “I Gave Up Everything for You, ‘Cept the Blues” to a country-tinged acoustic rendition of the classic Bonamassa song “Dust Bowl.” This collection is grand edition to the Joe Bonamassa catalog for everyone: the novice just getting to know Joe, or the hardcore decade-long fan who owns every release and is ready for more! And for me personally, there’s nothing better than some Bonamassa in the Big Apple!