WILKES-BARRE — It was the best of both worlds Wednesday night at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts.
First, guitar whiz Joe Bonamassa played a 50-minute acoustic set, covering everyone from Bad Company to Tom Waits to fellow blues-rock guitarist Chris Whitley. Then, he strapped on an electric guitar and led the large crowd through a supercharged 85 minutes of one amazing solo after another.
For the first part of Wednesday’s performance, Bonamassa sat at center stage in front of a semi-circle of acoustic guitars, grabbing a new one for each of the first set’s nine songs. First up was a solo acoustic performance of “Woke Up Dreaming.”
Bonamassa was then joined by his acoustic band consisting of Gerry O’Connor (fiddle, mandolin, banjo), Lenny Castro (congas and percussion), Derek Sherinian (keyboards) and Mats Wester (nyckleharpa, mandola) for a cover of Bad Company’s “Seagull.”
Highlights of the acoustic set included the group’s version of Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and Whitley’s “Ball Peen Hammer,” plus Bonamassa originals such as “Black Lung Heartache,” “Happier Times” and “Athens to Athens.”
Following “Dislocated Boy,” a Bonamassa original from his latest studio album (2012’s “Driving Towards the Daylight”), the guitarist said, “Thank you for coming out, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the heart and soul of the state. And conveniently located right off Interstate 81. I have been coming here my whole career.”
As he joked about being around for 25 years, he also made mention of the “elephant in the room” – “Tomorrow is my 37th birthday,” he said.
The crowd then serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” before he introduced the band members and finished up the acoustic set.
After a brief intermission, Bonamassa re-appeared with Sherinian, Castro, drummer Tal Bergman and bassist Carmine Rojas for a stunning version of “Dust Bowl,” the title track from his 2011 album.
“Oh Beautiful,” the second song of the electric set, was a standout as Bonamassa sang the verses a cappella and the band kicked in for the Led Zeppelin-like riffs.
Up next was a cooking cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking?” (which was featured on the latest album) and on to the Jeff Beck Group’s “Blues Deluxe,” which became a tour de force for Bonamassa Wednesday, both vocally and with his Les Paul.
“Love Ain’t a Love Song” was anything but a typical love song as first Sherinian (who has previously played with Alice Cooper and KISS) took a tasty solo on what sounded like a Hammond B-3, and then the song ended with an all-out drum solo by Bergman and Castro.
The main set ended with “Sloe Gin” and the epic “The Ballad of John Henry,” the title track of Bonamassa’s 2009 album, which featured another awesome keyboard solo.
After a brief retreat from the stage, Bonamassa encored with the instrumental “Django,” a showcase for his guitar/synthesizer sound, and then all six backing musicians joined him for the finale “Mountain Time,” which goes all the way back to Bonamassa’s second album (2002’s “So, It’s Like That”).
All evening long, Bonamassa showed why he is considered one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, earning one standing ovation after another from his devoted fans.