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Last night was the second time we've seen Joe Bonamassa. The first was in Las Vegas in 2009 at the House Of Blues and man that was a messy night of debauchery. The Ballad of John Henry had come out three weeks earlier and most of his set featured songs from that record.
Obviously, we were on holiday - and had seen Joe Satriani and Mountain there earlier in the month (another great gig) - so we planned to have a few drinks to loosen up.
Now, the House Of Blues is a pricey place to drink at the best of times but imagine our surprise when our pal Alan, fresh off the plane and jet-lagged to within an inch of consciousness, returned from the bar with a gin and tonic for each of us that had cost $34 a pop. We gasped and then laughed in the vaguely hysterical way you do when you're on holiday and are blowing money faster than you can earn it.
However, all was not lost because these were no ordinary gins. Oh no. First, they were in a huge tumbler, which we wrongly assumed was largely full of tonic. One sip revealed that this was in fact a large glass of gin, topped up with a dash of mixer.
'I asked for double,' he said, innocently.
'I don't think they do doubles. They just do "some" or "a lot," I said.
Secondly, this was no ordinary 37.5% gin. This was more like Kerosene. I still don't know what it was, but it hit me, as the blues vernacular would have it, like a ton of lead. Not that this stopped us going back to the bar for a few more.
JB was magnificent and we frugged the night away in fine style in some raised standing area at the back, or at least I think we did because things don't just get hazy at this point, they evaporate and disappear. I'm told we ended up in a burger joint somewhere, but I have no recollection of anything else for a few days. Those big gins wiped my synapses completely.
There were a few hundred in the HOB, but at Newcastle Arena there was about 5,000. Joe really sells tickets these days and fair play to him for that. I can't think of anyone who works harder on the road. And, as they produce and market all the records themselves, you've got to admire the graft that's taken him from playing to a handful of people in UK ten years ago to now selling out 5,000 seat arenas.
But my god, it was a different sort of gig. For a start, we were sober, but even if we'd had a couple of those big gins, it wouldn't quite have anything like the same vibe. It's hard to have any atmosphere in what is basically a huge sports shed. It's a very odd experience, closer to a sporting event in some ways. These purpose built venues used for ice hockey as well as for gigs, are soulless places. You sit on serried ranks of cheap plastic seats, surrounded by breeze blocks and the rancid smell of hot fat from the donut stall. It's chilly and entirely free of atmosphere. This isn't the band's fault, it'd be impossible for anyone or anything to create an atmosphere in a cavernous space like this.
You're there to listen to the music rather than party. No dancing allowed. I mean literally. It wasn't allowed despite there being plenty of space to get your groove on out on the floor. Just puke out your money, sit like a good boy and girl for a couple of hours and then go home, please. It ain't rock n roll, let me tell you.
We got lucky with the tickets. I bought the cheapest ones - £45! But we had a primo unobstructed view middle and centre, albeit at the back of the hall. The £75 on the floor, in what we might call the stalls, were rubbish. The floor isn't raked, so you're sitting there with up to 100 rows of seats in front of you all on the same level. Yes you're nearer the stage,but it's pointless as you can't see anything. Not worth the top dollar.
Anyway, all this being said, it was a brilliant gig by Mr B. This was his first of the UK tour and it seemed like he was feeling it big, wringing plenty of quality blues juice out of the guitars. He played for 150 minutes, the first half hour of which was done as a three piece. He played the best version of Where I Belong that I've ever heard and Happier Times was emotional and deep.
The stage is lit beautifully; drenched in intense colours. He did a very good Sloe Gin and jammed on John Henry for about 20 minutes.
I came away feeling he's still growing as a guitarist. He's definitely not over-playing the way he once did, and his solos really burn hotter because of that. Also his voice gets better every year. It was once a little reedy, but now is a full-throated blues shout.
We loved the music and we loved that we saw about a dozen people wearing our JB t-shirt too, but the venue is a stinker - despite the sound being pin sharp and well-defined - until they cranked it up for the end of the set, it lacked a bit of power.
As usual there were infuriating people in the crowd more concerned with documenting the event on their iPad rather than just get into the music - I'll write more about that on another occasion.
So Joe is rockin' it hard - I just hope you can see him in a proper venue and not a soulless arena. This was as far away from the Vegas experience as it was possible to get. Still, it's probably good to only wipe your synapses clean once every decade.