Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl (2011)

Dust Bowl is Joe Bonamassa's latest album, just released (today). It's a strong album, possibly even his best to date. Bonamassa is unique in that he possesses great consistency in his performances and recorded output, and yet, over the ten years that he's been releasing records as a solo artist, he just keeps getting better and better. His talent as a guitarist was apparent immediately from the get-go, but over time he's honed not only his singing, but also his songwriting, and his ability to put on a good, rounded, passionate performance, whether on stage or on record.

It's a little hard to compare Joe's albums without going back and listening to them in succession, but I would say that Dust Bowl has the maturity and energy of The Ballad of John Henry. His last album, Black Rock, veered a little into "world music" territory (without betraying Joe's consistency of quality), but Dust Bowl is, to me, more straightforward Joe Bonamassa music. The album opens with a track called Slow Train, and that's exactly what the song sounds like, as a modern polished approach to the old blues technique of mimicking environmental sounds (especially trains) with their instruments. Following that is the title track, which is a strong number that has a guitar part that, for me, is reminiscent of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game.

Dust Bowl features a few special musical guests, which, in the friendly spirit of musical camaraderie, is not unusual on Joe's albums. Tennessee Plates features John Hiatt, and takes on a bit of a country flavor, which is not out of place among the Wild West theme of the album. The drums in The Meaning of the Blues plod on as if the train from earlier were still rolling, while Joe takes an extended guitar break. I imagine this would be a great album to listen to while riding a train across the American countryside.

Black Lung Heartache starts out acoustic-like, but doesn't waste time building up energy, and features Joe playing some slide. You Better Watch Yourself is a pretty conventional blues shuffle, with a front row Wah effect. And then we come to The Last Matador of Bayonne, which is one of several songs on the album penned by Joe himself. It's very moody, and slow, and has a feel to it, in both the guitar and singing, that makes it very characteristic of Joe. I almost want to say that it's kind of like Asking Around For You, but with a much heavier weight to it, and a very passionate blues lead.

There are a million songs in the world titled Heartbreaker. When I first saw it on the tracklist for Dust Bowl, I wondered if maybe it was the Led Zeppelin song, since that's the one I've known best and longest. But I figured I would have heard something about Joe doing another Zeppelin cover on one of his albums, and I hadn't. I was also excited to see that that track featured Glenn Hughes as the special guest, who is the legendary rock bassist and vocalist who is currently playing with Joe in their supergroup Black Country Communion. As a result, Heartbreaker definitely has a bit of a BCC feel to it. But the album credits the song to Paul Rodgers, which reveals it to be the band Free's song titled Heartbreaker, which I had not previously been familiar with. But it's a great track, and Glenn sounds fantastic as always, and the riff (moreso on Free's version) vaguely reminds me of Mistreated, which Glenn played on with Deep Purple in the seventies.

Opinions are bound to change over time, but from a preliminary listening to the album, if I was pressed to select a favorite track, I'd have to pick No Love On The Street. It opens with sirens and ambient street sounds that immediately reminded me of Joe's cover of Sloe Gin a few albums back. When I looked at the song credits in the CD booklet, I discovered that, indeed, this was another song from one of Tim Curry's albums, just like Sloe Gin was. It works great as a sort of "second act" to Sloe Gin, and while not quite as epic or comprehensive as that song, it's a very powerful song with a searing guitar lead that seems to run throughout the entire song (which is precisely the reason I choose it as my favorite), and the beat of the song has an unsettling feel to it which I like. It's not a song you sit back and relax to, but the kind that gets your heart pumping and your mind racing.

The Whale That Swallowed Jonah pulls it back about halfway, keeping up the motion, but easing off on the emotion. And then Sweet Rowena comes in with featured guest Vince Gill. It's a bit of a swinging blues shuffle, with some very B.B. King flavored licks sprinkled throughout. The album closes with a track titled Prisoner. Sometimes, albums will go out on a light, mellow note. Prisoner seems to wrap up the energy of the album and give you one last desperate pump before the journey comes to a final stop. I would rate it another one of my favorite tracks from the album.

To me, Joe is one of those artists whose work over the years has earned my loyalty. I'll buy Joe's albums without thinking twice, and without even hearing them, because he has a flawless track record of putting out quality music. He has yet to hit a rut. And I see that same attitude in other Bonamassa fanatics. Unfortunately, though Joe keeps chugging along and getting more exposure, he hasn't really broken into the mainstream - but considering the kind of music the mainstream deals in, it's not surprising, and perhaps it's better that way. But if you're a blues rock guitar fan, you owe it to yourself to give a listen to Joe, who is my personal favorite guitarist of this generation. And if you haven't been introduced to his music yet, Dust Bowl is as good a place as any to make a start.

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