on 25 March 2013
Just as he announces he is stepping down from the role of guitarist in Black Country Communion, the ever-restless Joe Bonamassa unleashes a curt reminder of his phenomenal skill not just as a guitarist, but as a vocalist. A very special album indeed, `An acoustic evening at the Vienna opera house' captures Joe in the midst of a two week acoustic tour alongside special guests Gerry O Connor (fiddle), Mats Wester (nyckelharpa), Arlan Schierbaum (keyboards) and Lenny Castro (percussion), four multi-instrumentalists who play a curious assortment of exotic instruments that provide a depth and entirely different sonic slant to such Bonamassa stalwarts as `Dust bowl', `slow train' and `the ballad of John Henry'. Available as either a double CD, DVD or standalone Blu-ray, this remarkable set is best appreciated on one of the two visual formats as they offer enhanced sound (both DVD and Blu-ray offer DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 as standard, alongside a PCM track) and a better idea of the venue's glorious surroundings.
Possibly aware of the wealth of live albums and DVDs already attached to his name, Joe Bonamassa clearly had it in mind that any new endeavour would have to be special indeed and, in that respect, he has succeeded admirably. There is a sense of occasion connected with this DVD that comes not only from the stunning and often very different arrangements developed for this set, but also from the stunning surroundings which are magically rendered intimate (despite their size) by some truly excellent filming and editing. Just recently there seems to have been a trend away from the ghastly, MTV-inspired technique of rapid jump cuts and odd visual effects that became so common in live filming, and an elegant show such as this benefits from the slow, subtle work that has been gifted to it. Joe is given plenty of screen time, sitting surrounded by a row of guitars, but his four companions are also given plenty of recognition and the result is that you are effortlessly drawn into the concert rather than distracted from it.
As has already been stated, if you opt for DVD or Blu-ray you'll be greeted with a wealth of audio options, with a basic linear PCM track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and, best of all, a rock solid DTS 5.1 track all available. Sensibly the separate channels have not been co-opted for novelty pan effects, but rather the different instruments are given room to breathe and flow making the experience both wonderfully three dimensional and beautifully clear. Clearly the Blu-ray offers the very best in terms of sound and picture but even the DVD version looks spectacular, the contrast levels perfectly balanced thanks to the absence of typical stage lighting and the blacks (of which there are many) crisp and inky making this an unlikely visual treat - for those looking to show off a high definition home cinema kit this is one of those discs that you'll gladly seek out to show off your multiple speaker set up and large screen TV.
Enough of the technicalities however, the question most of you will want answered is whether the music is any good or not. The answer, as you might have expected from Joe Bonamassa, is a resounding yes. Cleverly he has worked well with his band to rebuild his songs from the ground up, stripping out the blistering guitar pyrotechnics of his electric set and replacing them with folky violin, shuffling percussion and much, much more. The effect is not unlike that of Eric Clapton's reinvention of `Layla' for his own, seminal Unplugged concert, or David Gilmour's brave reinvention of `shine on you crazy diamond' - the songs are both familiar and yet very different and all the better for having been rearranged with such care; few acoustic concerts are as utterly enthralling as this one and it is a genuine treat from start to finish.
From the start a sense of anticipation is cleverly built. The film makers clearly know that part of the concert-going experience is the wait you endure before the band come on. This is represented here by a beautifully shot introductory sequence that introduces the band members and their respective instruments, as well as the stunning city they have come together to play in, tied together by a dramatic, and brilliantly played piece of music that slowly fades in to the rapturous applause of the Vienna opera house show itself. Joe opens alone for a typically energetic `palm trees, helicopters and gasoline', his fingers flashing across the frets as he digs into the groove of the song. It's a brave start that highlights Joe's own skills and suggests a solid, if unspectacular blues concert. That view rapidly changes as the lights come up to reveal Gerry on the banjo adding depth to a stunning `Jelly roll'. You can feel the atmosphere turn electric as the two dual through the solos and then we're into a sublime `dust bowl'. Always a highlight thanks to its fantastically memorable chorus, here Joe reveals Lenny on percussion and Mats with his deeply unusual Nyckelharpa, an instrument that is essentially a keyed fiddle and which sounds gorgeous. The radical reinvention of the song does nothing to remove the pounding beat that is its back bone, or the sense of climax that it draws towards in its middle eight, but here the blistering guitar has been replaced by the disparate tones offered by the nyckelharpa and banjo and the result is a song that sounds as old as the rain that washes the hills of the black country and feels as refreshing.
The final member to be introduced is Arlan, who appears on a shimmering `around the bend', a song which also sees Gerry swap banjo for fiddle, an instrument which perfectly draws out the song's haunting melody, adding a touch of heartbreak to the rich sound. However this is a concert that is more about joy than sadness and `slow train' is given an energetic workout, with Gerry's fiddle adding in the guitar stabs of the original and Joe looking set to stomp right through the stage as the song builds up its full head of steam. You can almost feel the blaze of the lights and the intensity of the musicians as Joe's clear, high voice rings out clear and true through the mix. Another folk-laden tune appears in the fiddle `n' washboard stomp of `Athens to Athens', the perfect song to grab your partner by the hand to, and eliciting clear spontaneous outbreaks of uncontrollable joy from the crowd who whistle and clap throughout, the DVD does much to capture the spirit, but you can still only imagine the electric atmosphere in the building during this one. In contrast, `from the valley' sees the light and life briefly dim as Joe captures all attention with a heart-breaking, beautifully emotive piece of slide guitar that leaves you unsure whether to burst into tears or scream from the rooftops. Happily this decision is made for you as set highlight `the ballad of John Henry' appears immediately after, reborn as a Delta blues stomp, and if that doesn't have you screaming form the rooftops then you should, perhaps, give up all hope.
Sticking in a taut groove, `dislocated boy' recalls the stripped down and Moroccan-themed Page and Plant `Unledded' sessions and offers the wonderful Lenny Castro a chance to show his stuff, while `driving towards the daylight' is a more typical acoustic offering given great depth by the extra instrumentation, ending up sounding more Levellers than Led Zeppelin and redceiving a standing ovation in the process. "Let's play some blues, shall we?" Joe cries out before kicking into `high water everywhere', making sure the pace doesn't become one dimensional, and the audience by this point are willing to follow him everywhere, clapping along as if their lives depend upon it. Arlan's piano skills get a workout on Tom Waits' `Jockey full of Bourbon', reinvented here as a honky-tonk bar-ballad that not only rocks but which sees Joe relieved to have made it to the end with the lyrics intact! `Richmond' slows things down a touch, Arlan playing the accordion to add a touch of old-world grandeur to a haunting song. `Stones in my passageway' is dusty blues, as dry and sandy as the desert and as cool as the oasis you find at the heart of it. `Ball peen hammer' has a similarly relaxed feel, although the restless percussion and bright fiddle draws you deep into the heart of an imaginary landscape, far from the noise of the city and the roar of the crowd, only for the stunning `black lung heartache' to draw you still further up the side of a desolate mountain, something that truly imaginative and evocative music can do. That it is played and mixed with such skill and attention to detail is really the icing on the cake, and with the lights down low and the volume at neighbour-bothering levels it's all too easy to imagine yourself far from home. `Mountain time' passes all too quickly and then `woke up dreaming' once again demonstrates why Joe Bonamassa is so widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists currently treading the boards. The album closes on the twin highlights of long-time Joe standards `sloe gin' and `seagull' and you're left marvelling at how two hours has passed in a heartbeat and you hadn't once thought to check the time or stop the film for any kind of interruption at all. It is a testimony to how powerfully absorbing this set is, and there is no doubt at all that this is something you'll return to again and again.
In this hectic world the power of music to make you laugh, clap, cry and cheer is increasingly overlooked and ignored and yet it is as essential as ever, if not more so. The more the media continues to champion the fast-selling, overly commercial, digitally-enhanced music of the mainstream the more we are of an entire generation missing out on the simple emotional appeal of genuine music made by dedicated musicians who have spent hours of their lives working to become the best. Artists such as Joe Bonamassa are so important because they not only play with precision and skill, but they play with their hearts and souls. All five musicians on the stage at the Vienna Opera House speak of their understanding of the music in brief clips interspersed throughout the music (the extras feature far more of this) and all five demonstrate the belief they have in their music with their subtle, heartfelt contributions to the songs on offer. This is a perfect display of what can be achieved by a group of musicians shorn of effects, shorn of artifice and over-inflated egos and the result is utterly spell-binding. Here you will find heartbreak and redemption, joy and sorrow, the latter no better represented than by the elegiac `sloe gin', and ultimately your belief in the magical power of music to feed the soul will be reinvigorated. This is a flawless set and it should be mandatory listening for any aspiring musician or music fan - this may be Joe Bonamassa's masterpiece, don't miss out.
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