Joe Bonamassa | Blues of Desperation | 9/10
How, more than 10 years in, do you create a career-defining album? Have an affair with someone in the band who’s married to someone else in the band while you’re already sleeping with someone else in the band, then record songs about the fallout while doing huge amounts of cocaine? Spend three years writing and recording, and another three months mixing, 60 minutes of music, while coming to terms with the $4.5-million in studio bills and your drummer losing an arm?
Joe Bonamassa’s done nothing quite as dramatic. Unlike everyone from Bowie to Bono, he hasn’t even moved to Berlin. But the results are no less revelatory. His 12th solo studio album in 16 years sounds fresh, powerful, and, without compromising his mercurial playing style, even a little raw. Which is exactly what his long-standing producer Kevin Shirley wanted. The plan was to record live with a small, high-energy band so the singer-guitarist would have to “work a little harder, like in his early years”. But Shirley, who’s revitalised everyone from Iron Maiden to Journey, took it a step further, recruiting two drummers to “really throw the cat amongst the pigeons”.
So, although he’s still playing incendiary solos on eight-minute epics and singing about trains, this is Bonamassa like you’ve never heard him before, performing with the hunger of youth and the confidence of experience. So, driven by the twin engines of Anton Fig and Greg Morrow, freewheeling album opener ‘This Train’ totally delivers on its opening line “This train don’t stop for no-one.” The stomping ‘Mountain Climbing’ rises high above the rock solid foundation laid by bass player Michael Rhodes. ‘No Good Place For The Lonely’ breaks out into a transcendent three-minute guitar solo that shifts between carefully considered highly technical runs and unhinged passion. The tongue-in-cheek ‘You Let Me Nothin’ But The Bill And The Blues’ is played so voraciously that it breaks the shackles of classic barroom blues. With dirt under its proverbial fingernails, the dark and threatening ‘Distant Lonesome Train’ perfectly represents the gnarled hands on the album cover. And the cinematic ‘How Deep This River Runs’ boasts Bonamassa’s most emotive singing and evocative guitar soloing yet.
But it’s not just the performances that impress. The impeccably crafted and sensitively presented ‘Drive’ is the sound of Peter Gabriel playing the blues. ‘Livin’ Easy’ takes a surprisingly self-assured detour into jazz. The country-tinged ‘The Valley Runs Low’ is beautiful in its simplicity, a song so solid it would sound just as good performed around the campfire on an old, beat up acoustic guitar. And the titanic title track is the pinnacle of 21st century blues innovation, a bubbling melting pot of synthy rhythms, sitar vibes, and an instrumental breakdown that channels Jeff Beck playing that spaced-out bit of ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
Holding it all together is Shirley’s unfussy production. For the most part he stays out of the four musicians’ way, and when he does weave in a honky-tonk piano, soulful backing vocal, Hammond organ fill, or occasional stab of brass, the intention is to complement rather than distract. Simple, really. And far less distressing than wrecking your personal life for the sake of a musical masterpiece.
Joe Bonamassa UK tour dates
19 March: Birmingham Barclaycard Arena (theticketfactory.com)
20 March: Bournemouth BIC (bhlivetickets.com)
21 March: Plymouth Pavilions (plymouthpavilions.com)