Joe Bonamassa – The Best Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of!

~ Until Now!  Because that’s what I’m here for! ~ JDPF

Music Reviews 2011 – Joe Bonamassa

Wow! Twice in one year, I’ve been stunned by my own ignorance of music.  I now concede, in Rumsfeldian terms, that “I don’t know what I don’t know” about music, artists and their craft.  First it was the Black Keys and now its Joe Bonamassa.  Have you heard of him?

Kudos and respect to those who know his music.  Once you hear him,  you can’t take him lightly.  When you hear him, you take note.  As one reviewer has said, “Joe Bonamassa is to the guitar what Liberace was to the piano.”  I don’t much remember Liberace’s relationship with the piano….but I think I get his point. Bonamassa is beyond a virtuoso; he’s as good or better than anybody else out there–but don’t take it from me, the Rumsfeldian ignorant, listen and decide for yourself, and join the debate.

On a recent trip to Tulsa, I was given Bonamassa’s new album, Dust Bowl, by a good friend–Gaynor Morris.  We didn’t really discuss it, since it was among a few other CDs, and we were working on other projects at the time.  I’d never previously heard of Bonamassa, and without any input, I didn’t jump right to listening to it.  It was maybe a week or so later, after I got back to Montana that I gave Dust Bowl a spin.  And from the first drum beat of Slow Train (the album’s first song), until now I can’t stop uttering the word “wow.”

Slow Train begins with a brush beat on a snare drum, gradually gaining speed, alternating with a beat on the snare, quickly adding a complimentary bass line, that all serve to roughly approximate the slow start-up of a real train beginning to move.  It’s immediately evocative and mesmerizing. Once you’ve heard Joe’s guitar add to the mix, you’re ready to ride this train wherever it’s going.

It turns out that Dust Bowl is Bonamassa’s 11th solo album.  He is a blues guitarist of some major reknown.  So, why hadn’t I heard of him?  It’s got to be a conspiracy.  Must be the Man trying to keep a good guitarist down.  Or perhaps just the complex, extraordinary world that we live in.  We’ve got world-class musicians all over the place and no time or attention span to pay attention to them, what with the Kardashian wedding and Obama’s vacation happening this past few weeks.  Not enough media to cover everything, so we’ll skip the world-class musicians.

So, I listen to Dust Bowl, and I’m immediately blown away.  Totally, completely taken by the power and truth of the blues.  What an unexpected, wonderful surprise!  Thanks Gaynor! I owe you one.

Joe Bonamassa is a 30-something year-old, former child prodigy, who purportedly played with B.B. King beginning about age 12.  A child from a multi-generational family of musicians, Bonamassa was quite literally born to his craft.  He was apparently somewhat obscured by the similar, contemporary (to his own) storyline of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang.   Bonamassa was marketed similarly but didn’t seem to gain the media attention of the other two.  Again, there is only so much media, and they’d already done the child-prodigy blues boy becomes man story–twice even.  So Bonamassa was old news, before he ever made the news.

So, he toils along, works his craft, embraces blues influences of many styles–from British   (Clapton, Beck, etc), to Delta blues to Chicago Blues–all the while working toward creating his own style of rock and blues.  To me, Bonamassa’s work is as much rock as it is blues, but a lot of my favorite classic rock was full of blues (e.g. Led Zeppelin’s first album is a terrific example). Bonamassa’s work is in that same vein, and I like his pure blues works better than other blues-greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Just a stylistic preference, not intended to impugn Mr. Vaughan’s own powerful legacy.

Bonamassa’s guitar work is simply phenomenal.  From the first album, New Day Yesterday, to the last song on Dust Bowl.  Its consistent, soul-rendering, guitar perfection. Bonamassa’s guitar work plucks at the soul’s hard-wiring like drum-beats drive our subconscious instinct to toe-tap. We are all hard-wired to respond and Bonamassa seems to have a unique ability to access and deliver the truth.  His music is an undeniably powerful force to behold.

I’m not even close to digesting all of his works yet….but I am four discs deep into the catalogue–with excerpts from others, bought in installments.  I haven’t heard anything yet that didn’t wet my appetite for more.  Unfortunately, Bonamassa’s catalogue exceeds my disposable income for one month.  Dang~!  My patience shall eventually be rewarded.

Joe Bonamassa is beyond the top of his game.  He’s made it.  He’s way beyond the Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Jonny Lang comparisons.   His May 2009 concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London etched his name at the top, on the pinnacle of blues artist heraldry.  That concert, available on i-Tunes, featured an Eric Clapton collaboration.  The 2-hour concert cemented Joe Bonamassa’s “I have arrived” credentials forever.

And yet, he still works in relative obscurity.  So, I write, to do my small part in “educating” the masses.  I can envision a more enlightened world where we all move forward in unison as Joe Bonamassa fans.   It certainly beats waiting for a world where Obama brings us “hope” and “change”–but that’s another article altogether–ah, but I digress.

Short of being qualified to do a “Best of Joe Bonamassa” suggested playlist, gleaned from his entire catalogue, I can only offer a few examples of his mastery–and then turn you loose to decide for yourself.  As time and finances permit, I plan on acquiring the rest of his catalogue for my own opportunity to go “back to school.”

Looking at Joe Bonamassa’s album reviews on i-Tunes, the term “jaw-dropping” appears in the first sentence of his first album’s (New Day Yesterday) official review.  This term would reappear on multiple occasions reading other’s reviews.  Jaw-dropping seems to be the normal human response to obvious mastery of the guitar, when you don’t have any expectations of witnessing it.  Numerous reviewers have had the same response as me.  “Joe Bonamassa, I’d never heard of him until xxx, and now all I can say is wow.”

My own jaw-dropping, awestruck moment came when I heard Joe’s version of “Tea For One,” a remake of Led Zeppelin’s fairly obscure, 9 minute blues dirge lamenting a break-up, from 1976’s Presence LP. I know how rare it is to be “blown away” by studio recorded music…but Bonamassa’s version did just that….and continues to, every time I hear it.  His “Tea For One” so vastly exceeds Zeppelin’s that I felt an instant desire to write about it…and a healthy fear that folks will dismiss my words as more “hyperbole.”

Bonamassa’s Tea For One is on his 5th studio album, 2006’s release, You and Me. Playing drums on that record, is one each, Jason Bonham (son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham).  And while Jason will never have the legacy his father did, he is the best drummer around for playing from his father and his bandmates’ library.   He brings a built-in honor and respect….and genetic predisposition for pounding it out, like his father did best.  His drumming for Bonamassa is both faithfully credible and inspiring.

On Tea For One, Bonamassa’s guest vocalist Doug Henthorn can’t and doesn’t compare to Robert Plant’s vocals–though he more than does justice to it.  But Bonamassa absolutely and completely upstages Jimmy Page’s guitar work.  I have re-listened to Zeppelin’s version more than once to see if I’m maybe mis-remembering….and each time it reaffirms Bonamassa’s chops.  And I don’t say any of this to impugn Jimmy Page.  His legacy and credentials remain safe, to be revered by rock enthusiasts forever.  The contrast just serves to highlight the inherent truth of the favorable Bonamassa comparison.

The only negatives anyone says about Joe Bonamassa–in the context of trying to understand why he isn’t better known–is that he isn’t a great vocalist, and that his studio performances don’t completely capture the “jaw-dropping” magic of his live shows.   Vocally, he is more than adequate; in fact, he is good.  It’s true, he can’t compete with Robert Plant, but he does justice and the vocals don’t ever detract from the music.  There is a collective sense among reviewers that he has continued to improve vocally over the years and records.

As far as the live versus studio comparisons, I have no personal knowledge there.  I will have to take others’ word for it.   I haven’t yet seen Joe Bonamassa live….though he did just give a guitar workshop, just down the road here in the Flathead valley, down on Flathead Lake in Bigfork.  We toyed with going, but had driven all day back in from the Seattle area…and, in the end, I didn’t want to be just a “fan” milling around with a bunch of local guitar players at a Blues Fantasy Camp-like workshop.  I want to see him play with a full band.  Maybe he’ll be back in Tulsa or OKC on an upcoming trip.  I can only hope.

For now, my essential Joe Bonamassa playlist goes like this:

  1. Tea For One – from 2006’s You and Me LP
  2. Slow Train – from 2011’s Dust Bowl LP
  3. Dust Bowl –    ”        ”            ”      ”       “
  4. Color and Shape – from 2000’s New Day Yesterday LP
  5. The Whale That Swallowed Jonah – from 2011’s Dust Bowl
  6. Bridge to Better Days – from 2006’s You and Me LP
  7. Black Lung Heartache – from 2011’s Dust Bowl LP
  8. Asking Around For You – from 2006’s You and Me LP
  9. Sloe Gin – from 2007’s Sloe Gin LP
  10. Last Matador from Bayonne – from 2011’s Dust Bowl LP
  11. Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do – from 2000’s New Day Yesterday LP
  12. Another Kind of Love – from 2007’s Sloe Gin LP
  13. So Many Roads – from 2006’s You and Me LP
  14. One of These Days – from 2007’s Sloe Gin LP

The above playlist doesn’t completely capture Bonamassa’s catalogue, but it does capture some major highlights and it certainly reveals his “world-class” skill-set.

Well enough of my bloviating.  Go find and listen to some Joe Bonamassa.  His website (jbonamassa.com) has free downloads from Dust Bowl.  And I’ll happily gift a three song Joe Bonamassa sampler set from i-Tunes to the first person to comment substantively and thoughtfully (as determined by me, in accordance with my own unspecified analytic terms) on this article.

Enjoy~!  And Support the Musicians you like! JDPF

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10 Responses to Joe Bonamassa – The Best Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of!

  1. Being a guitar player myself, I keep up on the up-and-coming guitar players. Have seen the one-dimensional kids come up like KWS and J. Lang. There’s always a fresh crop and I see them in the local jams coming in with their fathers on Monday nights. The fathers ready to let the world see the next pentatonic ripping 14-year-old mix it up with the big boys. Usually, they have a spate of stolen SRV licks and a nice guitar/amp combo their father must have bought them. That brings me to this wonder kid…JB.

    He’s not a kid. He was a kid. I saw him before he started charging 75 bucks and up per ticket. Saw him live before the Royal Albert Hall TV stuff. I saw him in Wisconsin on the the back of a makeshift stage/trailer. This was only a few years ago when he was unfamous. Oh yeah, he’s still unfamous.

    I saw him at what was and still is a blues fest. Joe was the Friday headliner for a fest that cost all of twenty bucks for three days of music in the middle of the country. Joe came out and hit the Boss delay pedal and proceeded to sing very average and set songs up for his solos. I had heard of him before, but, had never seen him live.

    He actually didn’t really play blues at all. He re-treaded some Yes songs and bumbled through some Led Zeppelin tunes…then hit another tangent with some Jimi Hendrix…. Remember, this was a blues fest. Oh, and his all too famous take on ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” also got played.

    I felt like I just got played. I was there for the blues music and this guy had the balls to play open jam style rock tunes. I left half way through the set. He was pretty into himself and was technically proficient on his instrument. But, it truly lacked soul. And, his spite for the people that were there to hear blues, that struck me as odd.

    He also had a massive promotional team with him. There were selling promo gear emblazoned the Harley Davidson style logos with Joe B name and info. Basically, a rip off from HD. Kinda like his music: technically proficient he is….but, IMHO lacks real soul.
    And, most of it is rip-licks from 60’s blues rock and weirdly, straight up rip-offs of Eric Johnson licks.

    He reminds me of the the kids the fathers bring to jam nights on Monday. Never really lived the life that they sing about. But, they have a bag of licks they pulled from daddy’s collection. I admit, Joe’s got a big bag of licks.

    Ok…with that said….check out Joe’s work when he was about 15 years old or so on youtube he’s playing with Bloodline…that is his more pure playing. That was Joe then, when he was a kid.
    Now, he is a self-absorbed never lived the life you sing about ala KWS J Lang and others.

    Don’t forget, a headcase with average singing skills and an amazing (mostly) hollow repetoire of stolen souless licks.

    Yawn. Oh, and you can tell his goal is the crack the mainsteam with a good song. But, for the life of him, he can’t come up with a hit no matter how many times he re-incarnates himself. The latest being this thing he’s doing with the female vocalist. The last being Black Country Communion…it’s fun to watch from a distance. He really wants that hit song.

    • Interesting take Mr. Fairweather. You are clearly not as enamored with Joe as I am. I have noticed a trend among blues fans and guitarists….that they are more critical of others’ works….and especially breaks from tradition. Joe’s blues fans have, on a fairly consistent basis, openly disliked some of his more rock-leaning records—the very ones that I like the most. And you left halfway through his set at a Blues-fest because he was retreading Yes, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. I’d bet I would have loved that set…..as someone who grew up on Zep, Yes, and Tull. As did Joe. He was, admittedly, as much influenced by those groups as he was the Blues-masters. I certainly have no reference point for 60s and earlier blues. I probably wouldn’t know a stolen bag of licks from a blues-master if I heard it.

      One man’s cheap imitation travesty…..is another’s man’s purist gem.

      In this day and age of auto-tuned vocals, sampled and looped segments from classic hits, Joe and his Black Country Communion folks seem like neo-Classic rock traditionalists to me. The 70s was the greatest decade for music ever—or so it seemed to those of us who grew up over that decade. I love it that Joe and his colleagues are still doing it the old-fashioned way.

      And on your last note, I agree with you. It is fun to see Joe doing his best to create some major traction. I’d definitely like to see him get that “hit song.” R/JDPF

  2. Bill S says:

    Nice review and glad to see you found Joe and “got it”.
    I’ll just say that Joe is the best guitarist I have ever seen…and I’ve been to hundreds of shows and have seen pretty much every major guitar player since the 70’s, including Jeff Beck (my previous favorite) & Jimmy Page. I’ve been following Joe since 2004. For Mr. Fairweather to say Joe doesn’t play with soul is misguided at best. I have heard this argument before and it always seems to come from narrow minded blues purists, most often those that play guitar themselves.
    Here’s a suggestion Robert…go on you tube (or watch the Royal Albert Hall DVD and find a song like “The Great Flood” or “Sloe Gin” and tell me Joe doesn’t have any soul or that he doesn’t play the blues…if you’re still saying that after hearing either of these songs, then maybe you’re the one without real soul.

    • Thanks for the comments Bill. I appreciate your point toward Joe’s critics. And I believe you are right about Mr. Fairweather’s demographic. He is a blues guitarist himself, with a website of his own. After reading/responding to his comments, I got the sense that his “I am a guitarist too” comment may have been something I should have known…so I Googled him and found his website. It had 3-4 songs of him playing, starting with a Zeppelin cover (a blues song at that). Upon noting all of that, I got the sense that Mr. Fairweather’s criticism of Mr. Bonamassa, may have been rooted in a “it could have been me!” sentiment. R/JDPF

    • Couldnt bear to watch Royal Albert Hall…checked out a bit on PBS….thought it was a sleeper…Yawn. Shut it off…I’ll take the Black Keys over Joe b. for current blues-fused honest music.

      • Bill S says:

        And I’ll take JB over The Black Keys every day of the week. To each his own.
        At least you didn’t get personal about it, like your original post.

  3. Nancy Carlyle says:

    Note for the first reviewer – read your album cover from You and Me – Joe does not sing vocals on Tea for One, but plays the searing guitar. As for the other reviewers – I can say one word – JEALOUSY.

  4. Cap'n Chris says:

    I find that entire first fairweather comment above kinda ridiculous.

    “I saw an immature kid play 25 years ago in a crappy venue, he sucks and has too much money to sing blues.” is all that I took from the 10 paragraph Joe bashing session. then to say “he really wants that big hit” and in the next sentence mention Eric Johnson? EJ was lucky to get that lucky big hit. it was the only song on Ah Via Musicom that anyone has ever heard

    anyone who spends their days playing the blues and running scales is going to find themselves sounding like someone else. it’s already been done by someone, that’s where the scales chords and progressions came from, we’ve all learned them by playing someone elses music, we didn’t write them. I also hear a lot of Eric Johnson when I listen to Joe. styles(what he calls stolen riffs) and tone very much the same but I find Joes playing more appealing and less hollow and lifeless. I came to this conclusion after watching videos of them both covering “are you experienced” and Joes performance blowing EJ out of the water because i realized Eric Johnsons downfall is is perfect pitch. youtube it, you will find both videos.

    I’m pretty new to Joe. Found him when searching for a new guitar and saw his gorgeous goldtop les paul hanging there. didn’t like the guitar neck, but I decided to check out his music and i’ve been hooked ever since. I’m coming to blues from being an 80’s rock fan so I can relate to the harder side and shredder tendencies of Joes music. actually came here to your post after searching google for “essential joe bonamassa” cuz the guy has a lot of music out there.

    so.. what I came here for… Thanks so much for the list, it was great!

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