Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Joe Bonamassa

Dust Bowl (Pure Gold)

One of the things The Inky Jukebox loves about Joe Bonamassa, the blues rock guitar virtuoso, is that he makes albums that are actual albums that have a theme and tell a story, as opposed to merely being a collection of songs lumped together. Albums that exist as a whole, the sort you could only get on vinyl that had two sides you put a needle on and no singles.

His latest, Dust Bowl, does just that: the songs reach back to hardscrabble 1930s America for their tropes, rhythms, sound, and feel. In many ways it picks up from where The Ballad of John Henry left off, delivering an old-school masculine perspective rooted in rock and roll. There is plenty of twang on this record, drawing in a wider range of musical styles than we have previously seen from him. “Tennessee Plates” for example is a rollicking bit of honky-tonk with vocals from John Hiatt (whose next record is being produced by Bonamassa’s longtime producer, Kevin Shirley — on which Joe returns the favor). “Black Lung Heartache” features jangly guitars that could have come straight from the rural South, yet when it gets heavy it retains riffs that are distinctively recognizable as Bonamassa’s. Vince Gill lends him “Sweet Rowena,” which happily still feels very much like a Vince Gill song. “You Better Watch Yourself” is straight-up mid-tempo blues done right.

His Black Country Communion bandmate, Glen Hughes, takes a turn on the rocking “Heartbreaker,” though it is Bonamassa’s lead that dominates, as it should. The notes towards the end quotes Free at their best (which is apt, since Joe himself models his singing on Paul Rodgers (and why not?).

Peter Van Weelden’s spoken word vocal that creeps behind the music on “Dust Bowl” reminds me very much of Robbie Robertson’s great 1987 self-titled record (how ‘bout it, Joe?) (Come to think of it, please allow The Inky Jukebox to suggest a cover of the late Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” which will tickle your legions of British fans to pieces.)

The guitar playing is of course exemplary (he isn’t lauded by his peers for nothing), and for many folks to be a master in that area would be enough. But Bonamassa’s great gift is that he can also sing; his voice has a classic breathy tone and power that he uses with brash confidence. (“The Whale That Swallowed Jonah”). He can sing loud and he can sing soft with equal feeling and control, and he shows that ability off on Dust Bowl to great effect. “The Last Matador of Bayonne” allows it to shine.

It’s also where we hear in Tony Cedras’s fluttery lonesome trumpet echoes of Clarence Clemons on “Meeting Across The River” (give it a listen folks). It is completely appropriate: the trumpet embodies the melancholy in the protagonist’s heroic last stand the same way Clemons’s haunting addition lends Springsteen’s tragic speaker a depth of spirit. This is the sort of song which one hears the opening bars to and immediately knows this is going to be a Bonamassa classic, and it does not disappoint—taking us soon enough to soaring heights before bringing us back down to earth.

Which brings me to another thing that makes Bonamassa the complete package: he can write and compose the bejesus out of a song.

While every song on this album is a winner (no chaff here), we have to wait till the end for the best track of the lot: “Prisoner,” whose luscious chord progressions and rock power ballad edge make you want to get up and bust a move at whatever air-instrument you are prone to.

Bonamassa’s unlike your average musician in that he runs his own ship; not constrained by the demands and fickle economics of a major label, he records and tours under his own J&R Adventures. Sure, this might mean he gets less mainstream exposure (Rolling Stone famously ignores him for some ungodly reason), but he has a vigorously dedicated and passionate fan base who, supported in their efforts by the company, do a great deal to expand their hero’s reach.

And in case you are an audiophile throwback of the best kind, yes, you can buy this record on vinyl. You can check it out here.

A nice glimpse of Joe's technical side and his brand new 1959 Les Paul Sunburst. Sweet!
Joe's website

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