For years, Joe Bonamassa used to sneak three or four acoustic songs into the middle of his live shows. That changed in 2013, when he retooled his back catalog for An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, and four years later, he’s reconceived it again for the CD/DVD Live at Carnegie Hall.
Listening to them now, the two sets feel very, very different. On Vienna, Bonamassa brings his signature flash to acoustic guitar, playing single-string leads that are smart, fast, and big enough to fill an opera house. It’s a virtuosic performance that’s packed with drama, but for me, the best parts are the quietest, the riskiest, where he creates a folk intimacy, accompanied on and off by transatlantic fiddle, banjo, mandola, and nyckelharpa.
By contrast, the arrangements on Carnegie Hall are more clearly grounded in Southern blues and soul, especially with the addition of three Australian backup singers to give these songs a deeper sense of melody and a greater cohesiveness. The players—Eric Bazilian (mandolin, mandola, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, saxophone, acoustic guitar), Anton Fig (drums), Tina Guo (cello, erhu), Hossam Ramzy (percussion), and Reese Wynans (piano)—sound more like a band and Bonamassa more like a bandleader. Instead of soloing, Bonamassa is closely focused on rhythm, driving this music as hard as it will go and leaving much of the coloring to Bazilian, Guo, and Wynans. That’s a long way from Vienna, which is the biggest surprise here: That after all the practice, practice, practice it’s taken to get to Carnegie Hall, Bonamassa has made a less-is-more leap to rhythm guitar that uncovers new strengths in both his singing and his songwriting.
Below, Bonamassa and company perform “Dust Bowl” at Carnegie Hall:
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.