CEDAR RAPIDS — I first sang Joe Bonamassa’s praises in 1995, when the teenage blues guitar phenom hit the former Five Seasons Center stage with both hands blazing.
I said he “added the fuel to the fire” for the band Bloodline, opening that May night for Lynyrd Skynyrd, joining that rare cadre of opening acts that impressed me more than the headliners.
“Just 17, he huddles over his instrument, rocking back and forth, lost in his music, looking so very young, but sounding so very old,” I wrote in that concert’s review.
Fast-forward 24 years, and I finally got to review Bonamassa again on Thursday night, surrounded by 1,300 fans who sprang to their feet song after song as he unleashed two hours of nonstop firepower on the Paramount Theatre stage. He’s been to Cedar Rapids several times in between, each time mesmerizing audiences in various venues.
Bonamassa, now 42, wraps his sapphire blues in a slick and polished show, moving up from blue jeans to a hipster-tight blue suit and slicked-back hair, while retaining the musical grit that rocketed him to the top of his game.
His musicians were arranged in a big band style, with blistering trumpeter player Lee Thornburg and searing sax man Paulie Cerra seated behind bandstands emblazoned with “JB” inside a bright blue guitar pick. Guest drummer Greg Morrow and Australian singers Mahalia Barnes and Jade McRae also were elevated into view on the back platform.
Anchoring the floor space were bassist Michael Rhodes and keyboard master Reese Wynans, who spent five years with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, and has played with a who’s who of country and blues artists. Rhodes and Wynans took turns dueling with Bonamassa throughout the show, while Wynans launched into the several solo spotlights on synthesizer and classic rock and blues organ.
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A steady bass started pulsing through the audience before the musicians hit the stage, melting into a Muddy Waters recording of “Tiger in Your Tank.” Then Bonamassa bounded onboard, turning the 1960 tune on its ear, ripping into the first of many wailing riffs that morphed each song into an exhilarating jam.
The momentum built through each of the 15 songs, even when they undulated from sizzling to nearly silent passages. Generally, when Bonamassa pulled back the volume, the crowd did, too, until near the end, when shouts from the seats pierced the darkness.
Every song was a highlight. The up-tempo “Evil Mama,” which showcased Wynans with an old-school, Hammond B3-style sound, ended with Bonamassa coaxing sounds out his guitar that you didn’t know were possible. He then turned more down and dirty on “Just ‘Cos You Can Don’t Mean You Should,” sliding his right hand up the strings while his left hand created a perpetual blur on the fretboard.
He changed guitars with every song, the music still bending him over his instrument as he channeled his pretty much peerless artistry.
With impeccable pacing, he countered the lightning pace of “King Bee Shakedown” with the languid beauty of “If Heartaches Were Nickels.” His vocals took center stage on this lament to broken dreams, with the various instruments and voices adding layers of sound, building to a soulful cry as he poured out his heart.
He dived into other deep shades of blue with the hypnotic “Blues of Desperation” and “Sloe Gin,” each one gorgeous in its quiet crescendos of intensity. After bounding with more raucous abandon between the softer numbers, he launched into a chromatic burn upward on “The Ballad of John Henry,” whipping the crowd into a frenzy before the double encore.
The roar settled just a bit as he strolled back alone for the evening’s most intricate fingerpicking on “Woke Up Dreaming.” The reverie shattered when he and the band raised the roof with “Mountain Time,” roaming that fine line between delicate control and wild abandon. That’s the beauty of his virtuosity.
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