It's been six years since blues guitarist extraordinaire Joe Bonamassa last played Philadelphia's Academy of Music. But, as he joked with the audience during Saturday's performance at the venue, he's been waiting to return ever since organizers booked him for this past weekend's performance back in 2011.
"They said, 'Take it, or we're giving it to the great grandson of Pavarotti,'" Bonamassa said. "So, here we are."
The wait, it turns out, was well worth it. Saturday's show clocked in at more than two hours, with Bonamassa and his all-star backing band pumping out 14 tracks of blues-infused rock. Bonamassa's guitar work, of course, was front-and-center, thanks to numerous scorching solos from the longtime blues veteran.
Bonamassa, 40, starting playing at five years old, and these days can shred a guitar like your average person can get trolled on Twitter. By 11, he was being mentored by guitar great Danny Gatton, who is known for creating the "redneck jazz" style of playing. At 12, Bonamassa began opening shows for blues legend B.B. King.
Saturday's performance showcased the culmination of all that work, with the evening's set featuring a number of tracks from Bonamassa's latest solo effort, Blues of Desperation. The night's first two tracks, "This Train" and "Mountain Climbing" came from that release, and evoked blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughn laced with the rock sensibilities of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
Bonamassa also piqued the obsession of guitar lovers: Vintage instruments. There is, after all, more than one reason why the performance was touted as "The Guitar Event of the Year" in promotional materials.
Bonamassa has long had Gibson Les Paul model in his name, and he used that model plenty on Saturday. But he also brought out older Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, as well as the classic Gibson Flying V. Altogether, Bonamassa played five or six guitars throughout the night, all of which came from his massive, storied collection of guitar memorabilia. With thousands of pieces of vintage equipment, the collection today is known as the "Bona-seum," and is more or less a guitar nerd's wet dream.
The result was a show that is steeped in blues and rock culture, right down to the instruments that helped make the genres special. That Bonamassa hit the stage dressed like a full-on Blues Brother — complete with dark suit and black sunglasses — helped there, too.
Solos, though plentiful, were expertly constructed and technically perfect. Of particular note were the hard-driving guitar showcases on "No Place for the Lonely," and "How Deep This River Runs," both from Blues of Desperation. Both start slow, but eventually evolve in to a cascade of bluesy, emotional notes that enveloped the Academy of Music in Bonamassa's modern blues-rock sound.
Bonamassa paid tribute to past greats with covers of tracks from Freddie King, Albert King, Leon Russell and Led Zeppelin. Another tribute came following Bonamassa's "Slow Train," which had the band weaving in AC/DC's "Back in Black" as a tribute to Malcolm Young, who died on Saturday.
Bonamassa's band, meanwhile, was as tight as the guitar player. Given its makeup, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising: a who's who of modern greats, with Anton Fig (David Letterman's house drummer for nearly three decades) on drums, Reese Wynans (formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughn's Double Trouble) on keyboards, ex-Supertramp and Tower of Power member Lee Thornburg on trumpet, and former Johnny Cash collaborator Michael Rhodes on Bass. Vocal backup came from Juanita Tippins and Jade MacRae, a pair of up-and-coming singers out of Australia.
Each got their chance to show off their talent, and all seemed to equal Bonamassa's expert playing. Fig, for example, performed a several-minute drum solo as the rest of the band walked off the stage — a good thing, considering his family took the train to Philly from New York City to see the show, as Bonamassa told the audience on Saturday. MacRae and Tippins, meanwhile, shined on Albert King cover "Breaking Up Somebody's Home."
Despite the energy and nature of the show, though, the crowd did need a little coaxing to get fully into it. About an hour in, Bonamassa addressed the crowd, which had been sitting up until that point. He told them all to get up out of their seats — which most everyone obliged. After that point, it felt like no one sat down again until they got in their cars to go home.
Maybe that trepidation to cut loose comes from the nature of the Academy of Music itself, which celebrates 160 years in business this year. Bonamassa remarked on the history of the venue on Saturday, saying that even he couldn't believe he was playing there.
"You see that seat your seated in? Somebody 160 years ago came here to watch a classic concert," Bonamassa said. "Never in their wildest dreams could they see some Italian kid with a funny name from Utica, New York gracing it 160 years later. If they knew that, they would have turned it into a grain depository a long time ago."
Lucky for us, that didn't happen. But if Bonamassa waits another six years, who knows? We might really have the blues by then.