Joe Bonamassa – The Rest of the Story

Music Reviews 2011 – Joe Bonamassa Complete Solo Discography +

You knew I wouldn’t rest until I got to the bottom of the rabbit-hole.  That is, if you actually know me.  I’m almost there–I can see it from here and yet, the Joe Bonamassa story remains an abiding passion.  I’m still getting to know his catalogue.  Proverbially, I’m wearing it lately like “comfortable shoes.” Napoleon’s corporal (my blog-food taster and foremost critic) isn’t yet as enamored as I am.  No sweat, we must all be true to thine selves, and be honest about it.  Fair enough.

I’ve listened, I’ve read, I’ve watched concerts on TV, and I’m starting to get a feel for Joe Bonamassa as an artist.   He is an amazing guitarist.  His skills are world-class; his work-ethic unequaled.   His fan-base is enthusiastic and growing….but nowhere near what he deserves.  I can only chalk the disconnect up to “complexity theory” (but that’s another article).  But disconnect or not, Joe Bonamassa is the real deal, a modern master–the best and most prolific guitarist of his generation.

Joe Bonamassa is a blues-rock guitarist.  He has 12 solo records.  I now own each of them on CD.  And I own both of his Black Country Communion (SuperGroup) CDs too.  I have my eyes on a Beth Hart – Joe Bonamassa CD, the last thing I know that he’s worked on that I don’t already have.  I’ve done a two-month Bonamassa-fest and have formed some opinions about his music.  Here’s the rest of the story that I began last month.  This is my thoughtfully considered, “worn-in” review of the man, his works and his fanbase.   I’ll review his entire solo discography and Black Country Communion work.  But, I’ll start with the fans.

Joe Bonamassa has multiple demographics among his fans–but they can generally be broken into two camps.  Camp one consists of his “blues” fans, who are partial to his earlier works and especially partial to his 2003 “Blues Deluxe” release.

Camp two of the Bonamassa fans are those who prefer Joe’s versatility and rock edge.  I find myself mostly in this camp.  Not that I dislike his blues, far from it, but I just prefer his heavy rock style.

Bonamassa’s records have demonstrated an evolving growth and maturity as an artist over the years, but all of his success has been made possible by his deep and abiding talent and guitar-skills–which were clearly manifest from the very beginning of his solo career.

Bonamassa’s professional career has been said to have basically two parts. The first began in 2000, with his “A New Day Yesterday” release, and went up through his 2004 release, “Had to Cry Today.”  This period of his career was generally characterized by him showcasing his skill-set.  His guitar mastery was perpetually on display and the emphasis was on making sure you got it, that he was a technical master.  Mission accomplished.

The second phase of his career, began with the introduction of Bonamassa to his current producer, the South African-born, Kevin Shirley.   This phase of his career includes all releases from 2006’s “You and Me” to present. From then until now, greater effort was applied toward the “whole package”–with slower songs, more overall instrumentation and texture, and improving, soulful vocals, adding to the given of Joe’s superior guitar skill-set.

Since “You and Me,” Bonamassa has perpetually exuded a comfort and ease in his place. His skills are still manifest, in virtually every song, but his songwriting, his vocals, and his packaging are clearly more mature.  No matter who he plays with, he fits magnificently. He is truly a pro–a virtuouso, but full of humility and generally without pretense.  How refreshing is that notion?

All that said, I love each of his records in some unique way–for the influences I hear, for the stunning, “jaw-dropping” covers, and for the guitar wizardry.  Some artists start strong and eventually fade away.  Others start slow and grow into greatness.  Few start strong and stay strong, through all evolutions in their craft.  In this Bonamassa is truly worthy.

The anatomy of a Joe Bonamassa record is basically, 6-8 cover songs, usually blues-based, but not always, with the other 4-6 songs being Bonamassa originals.   It is a testament to him, that it varies from record to record, whether the best, most memorable songs are covers or originals.  In each case, where I knew the song he was covering before-hand, he did them better than the original.  I haven’t heard a song yet that he didn’t cover magnificently.

So, without further delay, the NorthernRockiesView of the complete Joe Bonamassa discography follows:

Year 2000 – A New Day Yesterday – A Shred-elicious Debut.  Bonamassa delivers the chops.  Songs of import include the first great Bonamassa original Colour and Shape, the Jethro-Tull covering title-track, the Rory Gallagher cover Cradle Rock, and Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do.  Despite naming a few favorites up front, this, like a number of other Bonamassa albums, is a start to finish listen.   With a number of upbeat, rapid-fire tempo songs here, it makes for a terrific work-out accompaniment album.  I only wish I had discovered it new back in 2000.

2000 – A New Day Yesterday Live – The last of 60 shows supporting his debut album was recorded for posterity. Dismissed as unnecessary by i-Tunes’ official reviewer, this gem was, ostensibly, released to highlight the incendiary nature of Joe live.  It was, if nothing else, early recognition of the longstanding adage–Bonamassa is best beheld live.  That alone sets him upon some very elite company (as Rush fans will attest). This record’s official i-Tunes review highlights why I do my own reviews.  That i-Tunes reviewer is full of sh*t…but I digress.

2002’s So It’s like That – Excellent follow-up, Sophomore studio effort.  This is the first record where I think I hear Stevie Ray Vaughan being channeled, especially on the title track and Takin’ the Hit.  Other important tracks include the original Bonamassa epic, Pain and Sorrow.  In the same spirit as the Ted Nugent classic Stranglehold, Bonamassa leads you through ten minutes of layered, multi-textured guitar gymnastics—all underscoring the fact that real-world pain and sorrow can be deep, complex, thorough and utterly relentless.

2003’s Blues Deluxe – Bonamassa’s tribute to the Blues Masters – he not only covers B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy, etc.–but he also does it imitating their unique styles.  Again, he appears to be emphasizing his skills.  Notable tracks include:  John Lee Hooker’s Burnin’ Hell–a George Thorogood sounding stomp; the Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck penned title track, Blues Deluxe, originally on Jeff Beck’s Truth, B.B. King’s You Upset Me Baby, and the Bonamassa original Woke Up Dreaming.

2004’s Had to Cry Today – Some have called this a country-influenced Bonamassa. Others have called this a second chapter of Blues Deluxe.  It is certainly a blues-forward, rock secondary record, more like Blues Deluxe than his first two records. This is probably his least appreciated effort but not for any good reason.  Notable tracks include the B.B. King cover of Never Make Your Move Too Soon, the Blind Faith (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, etc) covering title track, and the Bonamassa original Around the Bend.

2006 You and Me – The first of my Bonamassa favorites.  Delivering no less than six songs that are staples of Bonamassa’s live shows, this the first Kevin Shirley produced album. Of these songs, my favorite remains the Led Zeppelin cover Tea For One.  But, favorites aside, this is another start to finish listen.  Just press play.  Joe’s songwriting skills are again manifest on Bridge to Better Days and Asking Around For You.  Other notable, attention-grabbing highlights include the classic So Many Roads, and the blues-harp infused Your Funeral My Trial.

2007 Sloe Gin – Another start to finish masterpiece, cementing the value of Kevin Shirley’s influence.  It starts with a pounding Ball Peen Hammer and drives through One of These Days, and then offers an interesting and familiar cover of Seagull (the theme song from Jonathan Livingston Seagull).  The title track is a Bob Ezrin and Michael Kamen penned song.  He also offers a more polished reprise of Around the Bend (previously released on Had to Cry Today).  That track alone shows the emerging maturity and growing soulfulness.

2009 Live From Nowhere in Particular – Released just months before his Royal Albert Hall performance, some redundance in song choice exists.  But, as all of his live show recordings indicate, it isn’t superfluous. This record clearly demonstrates Bonamassa’s remarkable live-show consistency.  You can listen start to finish and not hear a single mistake.  It also demonstrates another Bonamassa live signature-the classic-rock/ prog-rock mash-up  A New Day Yesterday/ Starship Trooper/Wurm.  Who among rock classicists doesn’t love the idea of a sensibly crafted Jethro Tull-Yes mash-up?

2009 The Ballad of John Henry – My favorite Bonamassa solo record – heavy, bluesy, funky, emotional,  and exhilarating. It is another start to finish jam. The title track leads off, delivering the message that Bonamassa has his “A-Game.” Emerging from this great song list is another Bonamassa penned classic – Happier Times. Written from the lowest emotional place he’d ever been, it clearly shows the Bonamassa tether to the truth.  The more he hurt, the more emotive he wrote and played–a special quality indeed–a true chills inducer.

2009 Live from the Royal Albert Hall – Bonamassa’s “I have arrived” moment. Playing in front of thousands, sharing the stage with Clapton, he delivered on the biggest stage.  Among many favorites, but rising above, is the show closer–Asking Around For You.  This song is from You and Me…but the live version grabbed me more. What a wonderful sentiment is embodied in the lyrics–“if I get to heaven, and I hope I do, before I meet my maker, I’ll tap an angel on the shoulder, and I’ll be asking around for you.”

2010 Black Rock – Recorded in Greece, this record breaks slightly from the previous mold, building on the big band accompaniment sound that he enjoyed at the Royal Albert Hall. Taking advantage of local musical flavors, Bonamassa covers Jeff Beck’s Spanish Boots to Leonard Bernstein’s Bird on a Wire, adding unique layers (from flute to sax to bouzouki) not heard on any other Bonamassa record.  The record includes a B.B. King collaboration on Night Wire.  My favorite track, it would figure, is the heavier, straightforward, blues-rock track, Blue and Evil.

2011 Dust Bowl – The newest Bonamassa solo record–the one that got me scratchin’ my head.  Who plays a song about a slow train, that starts off like a slow train starting up? That’s original, that’s epic, that’s new….and prompted my first question–“who is this guy?”  I certainly had no idea how profoundly he would ultimately hook me.  He’s dragged me to the bottom of his solo rabbit-hole, and I’m looking now for his collaborations.  Dust Bowl is as individually worthy as any of his other records. Bonamassa is a master who delivers every time.

2010 Black Country Communion – Bonamassa’s “Supergroup” with Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater).  These guys rock.  Hearing them play hearkens Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Dio-era Black Sabbath, sometimes in the same song even. What a refreshing neo-classic rock sound. This record includes another Bonamassa penned classic, Song of Yesterday.  This eight minute epic includes 4-minutes of guitar-solo, except that it’s layered over Bonham and Hughes rhythm line, with accompanying strings.  This form, perhaps best exemplified by Zeppelin’s uber-classic Stairway to Heaven guitar lead, hasn’t been done this good since the 70s.  Simply stunning.

2011 Black Country Communion 2 – A worthy follow-up to their debut–except that it doesn’t include another “Song  of Yesterday”-like classic.  It does channel more Jason Bonham being his father’s son–proving the adage that the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” This record also highlights Bonamassa’s songwriting prolificacy.  Given that this is his 4th record since 2010, I’d say that makes him unequaled in this day and age.  Glenn Hughes, who’s was in Deep Purple before Bonamassa was born, has pronounced Joe “The Man.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Simply put, Joe Bonamassa is the best guitarist of his generation.  The fact that many still haven’t heard of him, is nothing short of a crying shame–an unyielding source for writing, playing, and channeling some more Blues.  I suppose if he wanted to be better known, maybe he should auto-tune some vocals.  To that I say, NOT!!!!

On that note, here’s my official, right now, guaranteed to blow your socks off “Best of” Joe Bonamassa playlist:

  1. Song of Yesterday – from 2010’s Black Country Communion
  2. Happier Times – from 2009’s Ballad of John Henry
  3. Tea for One – from 2006’s You and Me
  4. Pain and Sorrow – from 2002’s So It’s Like That
  5. Slow Train – from 2011’s Dust Bowl
  6. Dust Bowl – from 2011′ album of the same name
  7. Ballad of John Henry – from 2009’s album of the same name
  8. Blue and Evil – from 2010’s Black Rock
  9. Burnin’ Hell – from 2003’s Blues Deluxe
  10. The River – from 2004’s Had To Cry Today
  11. Colour and Shape – from 2000’s A New Day Yesterday
  12. Last Kiss – from 2009’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall
  13. So Many Roads – Live From Nowhere in Particular
  14. Another Kind of Love Live From Nowhere In Particular
  15. One of These Days – Live From Nowhere in Particular
  16. Asking Around for You – from 2009’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall

As always, Support the Musicians that you like~! JDPF

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