Guitar and singer Joe Bonamassa rocked the stage in Singapore

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Bowling fans over

Story and photos by PEIN LEE

Guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa rocked the stage in Singapore.

Every generation of rock ‘n’ roll has its fair share of heroes. However, it could be said that in recent years of pop rock domination and manufactured acts, there may have been a decline in fresh hard rocking talent emerging. This is particularly so in the case of the venerable electric guitar, that stalwart instrument of rock, the pillar that represents all that is good and powerful about rock ‘n’ roll.

In the past decade or so, Joe Bonamassa has been strengthening that pillar. While still relatively unfamiliar to mainstream South-East Asian audiences, Bonamassa has a dedicated following among aficionados of the blues and classic rock genres. With a signature sound of hard driving riff work and clean soaring solos, Bonamassa has just only begun to tap into the Asian popular culture, and his first show in the region for this year opened to a capacity crowd in the Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore recently.

Electrifying: Joe Bonamassa on electric guitar, with Tal Bergman on the drums at the concert.

Dubbed “An evening with Joe Bonamassa, the guitar event of the year”, the show was a tour de force of classic rock ‘n’ roll action, anchored by a firm foundation in the blues.

Touring as a four-piece band comprising Tal Bergman on drums and percussion, Carmine Rojas on bass, and Rick Melick on keyboards, Bonamassa took to the stage a day after arriving from the United States. While best known for his dexterity on the electric guitar, the evening opened with a string of acoustic numbers, shored up by Bergman on percussion. This would represent the proverbial calm before the storm, giving hints of the promised “event of the year”.

Electrifying: Joe Bonamassa on electric guitar, with Tal Bergman on the drums at the concert

As the main title of the concert suggests, Bonamassa would open and close the evening on his own terms, much like when Led Zeppelin first billed itself in a similar manner in the early 1970s, eschewing the time-honoured tradition of playing after an opening act. The title track of his new album, Driving To The Daylight, highlighted the opening sequence, this time as a purely acoustic number in contrast to the clean but electrified version on the album.

With the scene set, and the spirit of the crowd in high anticipation, the main set took off with Slow Train, a grinding blues rock that builds from a rhythmic foundation of drums and bass, taken from the album Dust Bowl. Bonamassa took the song from the platform to the open country, riding on a crescendo wave broken from the signature riff only to detour into thematic solos of powerful notes and flourishes, while the rhythm sections drove relentlessly on through the musical landscape set by Bonamassa’s guitar.

Speaking before the concert in the comforts of his dressing room, Bonamassa picked away at a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar (unplugged, of course) while ruminating on touring in Asia and his music in general.

“These are much smaller crowds, but then again, we’re not that well known here, but I’m glad we’re going to have a good turn out tonight. Of all places, I’m surprised that Bangkok (Thailand) is going to be doing well, and Hong Kong, too!”

He considers these tours an investment in the Asian market, and when asked about getting down closer to the fans Bonamassa said, “Yeah, we never thought about workshops until you’ve brought it up. If the kids and players want to hang out and jam, I think it’s a great way to get close and learn about what gets them going.”

One gets the sense that Bonamassa is all about the music, preferring to let his work do the expressing and keeping his words for the lyrics. The conversation covered past blues and rock greats and Bonamassa was surprised to learn of the active followers of these genres in Malaysia.

Bonamassa was disappointed that the Kuala Lumpur gig, originally scheduled for mid-September, had to be cancelled due to logistical and procedural issues, but hopes to include Malaysia in the next Asian tour in 2013.

Bonamassa injects as much energy during soundchecks as he does during an actual performance

Back on stage and dressed simply in all black, Bonamassa cuts a modest yet intriguing stage presence. Eyes hidden behind Maui Jim sunglasses, as if to suggest perhaps that the notes exploding from his guitars are just too incendiary, the combination renders an image of intensity and concentration.

Instruments are switched intermittently, reflecting the various tonal ranges and unique musical responses possible, but also for sheer convenience as Bonamassa, a well-known guitar geek, takes advantage of a variety of tunings, which lend richness and chord ranges that would not be possible if the standard conventional tuning were to be adhered to.

The weight of his touring group’s collective power is evident as the bass line thumped along with the melodies and lead parts, thunderous drumming riding the beat through cascading guitar goodness, counterpointed by keyboard work that lends delicacy and body to an orchestration that fully exploited dynamics and relentless energy.

The blues would not be complete if only fiery solos were highlighted. Bonamassa’s vocal styling has been variously described as soulful and powerful, and at 35 years old, it can be said that its nearing, or at, maturity. Bonamassa’s singing was able to rise above the controlled rawness of the music and demonstrated versatility, segueing effortlessly from the delicacy of the acoustic set right through to the emotional and rocking conclusion of the evening.

“I’m much better live than in the studio; being out there giving your all and wanting to please the audience just makes it all so much more intense.”

At just over two hours, the concert ended with a string of encore numbers, the crowd on their feet, throwing disdain to seating plans and ticketing concerns as they drew as close to the stage as possible. Sloe Gin, a classic Bonamassa live number, became the basis for arguably the night’s longest sequence of improvisation, drawing all members of the band to trade licks and runs, while Bonamassa worked the stage like a prowling panther, before concluding the night from the drummer’s podium, guitar aloft and triumphant.

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> Article by The Star. The review, backstage access and interviews were made possible by Sammy Shirra-Moore, The Deck.