Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Joe Bonamassa - Different Shades Of Blue (2014)

Last month, Joe Bonamassa released a new album, after the longest hiatus of his career - it's been two years since his last studio record, Driving Towards The Daylight. But that doesn't mean Joe hasn't been busy. In the last few years, he's released three albums with supergroup Black Country Communion (now sadly defunct), two as a duet with soul singer Beth Hart, and one with funk group Rock Candy Funk Party. And that doesn't include all the live albums and DVDs that have been put out, both with those other groups, and as a solo artist - the latter includes Beacon Theatre: Live From New York and An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House, not to mention the 4 DVD/4 CD set documenting Joe's most ambitious tour yet - 4 nights at four historical locations with four different bands in London - the appropriately dubbed "Tour de Force".

Joe is now over a decade into his career, and this is his eleventh studio album (by my reckoning). It's a more mature offering, as reinforced by Joe's soberingly personal introduction in the liner notes. He acknowledges that the Tour de Force was an ending to one part of his career, this album being the first step into the next phase. The album is distinctive in that, apart from a short instrumental cover of an appropriate Jimi Hendrix tune (New Rising Sun), it features all original material from Joe (who had assistance with some professional co-songwriters). I've always marked Joe as a phenomenal cover artist, but I suppose there comes a time in any serious musical artist's career when he has to consider contributing something new to the cultural repertoire (not that this hasn't been a piece of the puzzle all along). After all, even The Rolling Stones started out as a cover band; it was only when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started penning songs together that they became the "greatest rock n roll band in the world".

From that perspective, Different Shades of Blue is a promising record. Joe has always - even going back to his solo debut A New Day Yesterday - been a demon on the guitar, but both his songwriting and his singing talent has improved remarkably over the past decade. And his playing - fierce and ferocious at times, delicate and haunting at others - is at a point of sophistication where you could conceivably hire him for a pop session, and he could put one of those fiery solos down in the middle of a song by a commercial band who could never hope for that kind of musical prowess. But Joe is more than that - and his songs are infused with this kind of talent from start to finish. And the musicians he's playing with are at the top of their game as well. He's undoubtedly been growing his reputation over the years, and I think that it's conceivable that he may be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream (his albums are charting even outside the blues chart), without ever having to give up his personal approach to music and the industry, but simply by polishing his talent over the years to the point where it sparkles like a many-faceted diamond.

It's actually kind of weird. I was really looking forward to this album, after I saw Joe perform one of the new songs - Oh Beautiful! - live on a French television show (view it here). The song features relatable lyrics, as one who has spent a lot of time in rapture to beauty, but otherwise consists of a really long guitar solo that just goes on and on and on. But when the album finally came, I wasn't that impressed with it the first time I listened to it. My superficial impression was that it featured way too many horns (this is one of the things I disagree with Joe on - the horns don't belong in the blues). I was resolved that this would be one of Joe's albums that I just wouldn't like as much (like, say, Black Rock, which had some good tracks, but overall felt a little too worldly for a Bonamassa album - not that I begrudge him that musical experimentation).

But after listening to it several more times, I hardly even hear the horns anymore, and what I do hear is all that fantastic guitar, and the great hooks (both musical and lyrical). Honest to god, there's not a song on this album I'm not already singing along with (except the last one, which is softer - I'm not as keen on Joe's softer songs, generally speaking). The standout tracks are the aforementioned Oh Beautiful!, Heartache Follows Me Wherever I Go, the fierce Never Give All Your Love, and the title track, which starts out gently but builds to yet another searing guitar solo. But the rest of the songs are still a joy to listen to, especially with the volume cranked up. Whatever magic is at play here, Joe's got a winner on his hands with this album. And if you want a scrumptious teaser of what this album offers, watch the five part in-the-studio documentary Joe's put out. I recommend it. But if you've only got three minutes, then please, just watch this.

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