Joe Bonamassa just played a gig to an auditorium full of cardboard cut-outs

Joe Bonamassa live on stage
(Image credit: Kit Wood)

Joe Bonamassa is used to his gigs being filmed. This is a man with 17-odd live albums to his name, after all – hell, a year without a Bonamassa live recording of some sort feels unusual at this point. 

But even Joe hasn’t before played to an auditorium full of cardboard cut-outs. Or had his backing singers in Beefeater jackets, or played a new album all the way through weeks before its release, or had a china tea set alongside his usual menagerie of gear.

A night of firsts, in other words.

And those cardboard faces in the seats aren’t just there for kicks, each of them representing a person who’s bought the VIP ticket package – all tickets sold for this include a donation to the Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation, for Joe’s Fueling Musicians Program to help musicians in need during these pandemic-blighted times. 

The auditorium of cardboard cut outs

(Image credit: Kit Wood)

It’s also a legit happening-right-now livestream (unlike some hi-spec filmed gigs of the Covid era) and on some weird, subliminal level the knowledge of this really does add to the experience, even while enjoyed through a screen thousands of miles away.

It helps that Royal Tea is a class record. For my money it’s Joe’s best yet. A love letter to the British Blues Boom that also throws in a whole bunch of other tricks and textures, it’s a joy to watch from start to finish. How strange to be performing it for the first time to silence, one may think...

“I know this has been a weird, weird year,” Joe says mid-show, “but I wanted this to be a snapshot of it.” This, he reasons, is why we’re not hearing applause from the 30 or so crew members present. It seems fitting.

Joe is not, by his own admission, a chatty performer at the best of times. True, his between-song patter has increased a little over the years, but essentially he’s of the shut-up-and-play school of thought. And he eats big seated theatres like this for breakfast; this is the eighth time he’s played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (“point 5 of a time yesterday for dress rehearsal,” he grins, “point 5 today, so I think that makes one!”).

With all this in mind, it’s less of a stretch to imagine a Bonamassa gig translating to the livestream form than it is, say, an Iron Maiden epic or hardcore punk club show. It would be easy to knock him on these grounds (‘Too slick!’ ‘Too sensible!’ ‘Too...suity!’). 

A shot of Joe Bonamassa playing to a cardboard audience

(Image credit: Kit Wood)

But in truth, a large portion of Joe’s appeal – and anyone who’s watched his Live From Nerdville interviews with stars like Paul Stanley and Myles Kennedy will appreciate this – lies in his supernerd tendencies, attention to detail and genuinely enormous breadth of chops. And you sense that he cares – really cares – about all this.

What’s more he appears to relish the novelty of the situation. At times he almost seems to enjoy it more… ‘Man I’ve played to some tough crowds before! Let’s get everyone up!’ he chuckles before diving into the bouncing rockabilly-infused Lonely Boy. The cardboard cutouts say nothing.

The second half is more of a trad rocky blues fest, with the staples of classic blues nights in luxury high-definition. 12-bar wig-outs! Top-of-the-neck guitar flashiness! Solos! ALL the guitars! (come on, it’s Bonamassa we’re talking about; any guitar he doesn’t have probably hasn’t been made yet…). All of which sits well with the likes of Free’s Walk In My Shadows and Evil Mama (a tasty cut from previous album Redemption).

‘I’m not retiring, yet,’ he says, as proceedings draw to a close, enunciating the last word carefully, before announcing that they’ll be closing tonight’s set with … erm, Jethro Tull. But before our visions of Joe diving offstage and returning in tights with a flute can develop fully, they’re playing A New Day Yesterday (originally released by Tull on Stand Up in ‘69). Which actually makes total sense, sharing its name as it does with Joe's 2000 debut album, on which he also covered the track.

An ‘after-show’ took us out of the Ryman and into the homes of Tyler Bryant, Elles Bailey, Ida Mae, Vanessa Collier and other rising stars for taster sets of one or two tracks each.

It’s not the same as being there. Of course it’s not. But it is the next best thing, and in these prevailing odd times, we’ll gladly take that.

If you missed the show, you can watch it on catch-up until 27 September.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.