Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Spoiler Note: If you're like me, and would prefer to go into this movie without too many elaborate preconceptions, then you're probably not even reading this to begin with. Nonetheless, I will keep this review very light on spoilers, focusing more on overarching themes and my personal reactions than intricate plot details (because if you need to know who does what when, then you can just watch the movie, am I right?).


Alien: Covenant isn't the Alien movie I was hoping to see (although, to be fair, I think what I want is to be an impressionable kid discovering Alien for the first time all over again, and that's just impossible), but it's a thrilling and satisfying followup to 2012's Prometheus. Covenant is less the devastatingly raw horror of Alien (although it has some very tense moments), and more the high-concept science fiction of Prometheus, tackling such existential themes as creation and destruction, the purpose of life, and what happens when a life form meets its maker (and - like its immediate predecessor - for a movie with Biblical themes, it's not overbearingly preachy). However, the classic xenomorph does make its unambiguous debut this time around, and the movie answers many (if not all) of the frustrating questions that Prometheus raised, especially regarding the nature of the creature and how it relates to what we've seen in the past.

That having been said, I don't think I like the "broad daylight" CGI (the white-skinned "neomorphs" were a little too stereotypical del Toro-esque digital movie monsters; and the much talked about flute scene seemed to be trying too hard to impress the audience in a "look at me!" sort of way) as much as the bump-in-the-night practical effects that 1979's Alien was forced to employ. The xenomorph ought to be stalking its prey from the shadows, not being drawn out into the open. Furthermore, while learning about the genesis of the creature is a truly fascinating study - here's a clickbait title for the movie: who engineered the "perfect organism"? The answer may surprise you! - I think this is a case where mystery prevails over curiosity satisfied. Although it makes a lot of sense for the xenomorphs to be a kind of biological weapon, I find it scarier to imagine that they are a natural phenomenon, a dark force of nature existing in remote corners of the universe, to terrorize and haunt anyone who dares probe too far into the deepest reaches of space. Call it a Lovecraftian interpretation.

Regardless, for anyone who enjoyed Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is an exciting continuation of that story thread, even if I don't consider it the equal of the original series, which started with Alien, was expanded upon in Aliens, and concluded in Alien 3. There have been some more and less crappy titles in the interim (yes, I actually watched Alien: Resurrection again, and I still think it's a piece of crap not worth your time - nobody could say I didn't give it a fair chance), but one may be reassured that Ridley Scott's return investment in Prometheus/Covenant has restored some grace to the franchise. It is not clear yet precisely how these movies dovetail with the original encounter on LV-426 in Alien (there was a moment that was close in Prometheus, but then it was snatched away), leading me to wonder if these movies are not intended to be a fresh start - recycling some of the elements of the earlier movies, without being burdened by the limitations of connecting up with what's come before. But the timeline of these movies is marching towards the opening of Alien, and it appears that there is room for another potential title to follow Covenant. Only time, I guess (and box office figures?), will tell.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Blues of Desperation Tour (2017)

Joe Bonamassa - March 3, 2017 - Benedum Center


"The Guitar Event of the Year" may sound like promotional hyperbole - and with most acts, that would be the case - but when Joe Bonamassa is involved, it's nothing but the stone cold truth. I'd even go so far as to call it "the guitar event of your life", although I've now had four such events in my life (going back 11 years to 2006, when I saw Joe Bonamassa live for the first time), and I hope to have still more in the future.

Setlist:
This Train (om) Blues of Desperation
Mainline Florida (BB) Eric Clapton
Mountain Climbing (om) Blues of Desperation
Blues of Desperation (om) Blues of Desperation
No Good Place For The Lonely (om) Blues of Desperation
How Deep This River Runs (om) Blues of Desperation
Boogie With Stu (BB) Led Zeppelin
Never Make Your Move Too Soon (3K) B.B. King
Angel of Mercy (3K) Albert King
(Introductions)
Love Ain't A Love Song (om) Different Shades of Blue
Dust Bowl (om) Dust Bowl
Little Girl (BB) John Mayall's Bluesbreakers
Pretending (BB) Eric Clapton
Black Winter/Django (BB) Led Zeppelin[-ish]
How Many More Times (BB) Led Zeppelin
Encore:
Hummingbird (3K) B.B. King

(om) = original material, (3K) = Three Kings, (BB) = British Blues Explosion

I made a prediction for this concert. Judging from the trajectory of his career (and rumors that he was ejecting long-time staples such as Sloe Gin from his repertoire), I predicted that Joe would play nothing but original songs on this tour. In spite of the fact that he rose to prominence as a singularly talented cover artist, for his last couple of studio albums, Joe Bonamassa has dedicated himself solely to original compositions (with a little professional assistance). Presumably, if one is to play in the big leagues, one has to develop a songwriting craft, and not rely indefinitely on borrowing others' tunes (if we look at the history of The Rolling Stones, for example, we see a group that started out as a blues cover band, and only really hit it big when frontrunners Jagger and Richards decided to start writing their own tunes - and discovered they were pretty good at it). And if ever there was a time for Joe to take off the water wings (for better or worse), and see if he would sink or swim on the strength of his music alone, it seemed to me that this was the time.

But I was dead wrong. And I'm a little bit embarrassed, because I of all people should know Joe better than that. Leave it to him to eschew the traditional path to mainstream notoriety. I had forgotten one critical fact - Joe Bonamassa is not just a musician. He's also a music lover. And while a good half of the concert's setlist consists of original tunes - the vast majority of which hail from his latest studio album, Blues of Desperation - and none of them digging any further back than from the album Dust Bowl, I had underestimated the extent to which this tour would be an advertisement for Joe's other recent projects: the Three Kings and British Blues Explosion concept tours (featuring nothing but covers). The former has already been released under the title Live At The Greek Theatre (at least two of its highlights are represented here, including the encore, which was that show's climax). The latter is still on the way, explaining the fact that it brought all of the big surprises at this show, including the few songs I was not immediately able to identify.

In fairness, Joe played a good half of his latest album Blues of Desperation - and all the songs I'd have been most interested to hear (especially Mountain Climbing with its mean riff, and No Good Place For The Lonely with its off-the-hook outro solo). The show actually began with an audio recording of Muddy Waters playing Mean Old Frisco as the band took to the stage, before blasting into This Train, hinting back at Joe's other recent concept tour, Muddy Wolf, and emphasizing the fact that, basically - at its heart - the blues hasn't changed in the last 50+ years. It's just grown and evolved. The title track from Blues of Desperation sounded really good, as did How Deep This River Runs - leave it to a live performance (as ever) to enhance my appreciation for a song. I'm surprised Joe didn't play Drive - a mellower track, but one that I sense has been getting good press. I also would have expected to hear You Left Me Nothing But The Bill and the Blues and/or Livin' Easy, but I'm not disappointed, because what we did hear was probably even better.

I am, however, disappointed that I didn't get to hear either Oh Beautiful or Never Give All Your Heart - two of my favorite of Joe's more recent songs, from the preceding album, Different Shades of Blue - live and in person. I have to admit I'm surprised that he didn't play more tracks from that album, dragging out only Love Ain't A Love Song (albeit a popular one), while leaving off such songs as the title track, Living On The Moon, and I Gave Up Everything For You, 'Cept The Blues (all of which turned up on the recent Live At Radio City Music Hall album). Nor was there an acoustic set (not that I cried any tears over that development). The only other original tune Joe played - and the only song pre-dating 2014's Tour de Force - was the title track from Dust Bowl, which has received a bit of a makeover.

Clearly, I'm more of a thinker than a feeler - as I have an easier time analyzing the show than explaining how it made me feel. But what can I say? Joe Bonamassa is an amazing guitar player. I actually caught myself wondering a few songs into the show, is it possible to play a guitar solo in every song without it eventually getting stale? I guess that's a stupid thing for me to wonder, because I'm a huge guitar fan, and I could listen to an artist as talented as Joe play guitar for hours nonstop (and this show went for a full two plus hours from start to finish, without more than a minute or two's break before the encore). But a great show isn't just about the guitar (did I really just say that?) - it's also about the songs.

And the backing band. Joe's got a world class band backing him up - Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass, Reese Wynans on piano/organ. He's also got Lee Thornburg on trumpet, and Paulie Cerra on sax, plus Jade McRae and Juanita Tippins singing backup. The music veers a little more toward the horns and piano than I'd prefer, but that seems to be the direction Joe's going these days. When the band pulled out Never Make Your Move Too Soon (from the Three Kings tour - although Joe also previously recorded this song - in a slightly different arrangement - for his Had To Cry Today album), Joe left plenty of room for the band to shine, and I could just imagine B.B. King smiling down proudly from his lofty perch in blues heaven.

If pressed to choose a favorite song from this show, I'd be tempted to name Angel of Mercy, another remnant from the Three Kings tour. I noted when I listened to the recent Live At The Greek Theatre album that Joe has recycled the formerly-retired riff from A New Day Yesterday for this song, much to my delight. When he started playing it in concert, I recognized it, but couldn't quite place it, on account of it being such an old song in Joe's repertoire (that I hadn't heard live since the first time I saw him). But it came to me at the last minute before the first verse started, and for a brief moment, I thought that Joe was playing the first song of his that I ever heard, and the song that turned me into a lifelong fan. Alas, it was "only" Angel of Mercy (still a good song, though), but it was a thrill to hear nonetheless, as it's an incredible riff, and Joe plays it well. The song ended with an extended drum solo, so I think that Joe was intentionally channeling his earlier power trio days. Hats off to you, Joe, for not turning your back on your past, even if you have to cloak it in the vestiges of the ever-advancing present. (Isn't that just a metaphor for Joe's entire career?).

But there was more than one highlight that night - another one being the encore, Hummingbird, another song from the Three Kings tour (penned by Leon Russell and later recorded by B.B. King), which highlights the backup singers well. I didn't put two and two together at first, so much of the British Blues Explosion material threw me for a loop. I didn't recognize Mainline Florida (an Eric Clapton song), and though I heard Robert Plant singing in my head during Boogie With Stu, I naively presumed that Joe was covering an older song (Ooh, My Head/Soul?). I also recognized the lyrics from Little Girl, but couldn't place it as one of the 'b' tracks from the otherwise infamous "Beano" album by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. (Some obscure choices for covers - but they sounded pretty good in concert, providing some lighter rock fare between Joe's heavier, bluesy numbers).

It wasn't until Joe started playing the Eric Clapton song Pretending - which I recognized from having spied the British Blues Explosion tracklist previously - that I figured out what was going on. Surprisingly, there didn't appear to be any representation from either Freddie King or Jeff Beck (both of which could have been accomplished in one blow if Joe had played the song Going Down, which I've heard he played the night before - alas), but there's only so much time in one night. The show's climax was a spectacular rendition of Led Zeppelin's How Many More Times - another song that muddies up the distinction between these artists and tours (what with Albert King's The Hunter mixed into that song; on a related note, did you know that Jimmy Page recorded a version of Hummingbird for the 1988 album Outrider? I'll bet you could write up a setlist that you could just as easily call a tribute to American Blues as British Rock!). Hailing from the band's first album, it fills the hole left in the concert setlist by the removal of Just Got Paid, during the extended solo of which Joe liked to throw in the guitar solo from Dazed and Confused.

But before Joe broke into the very recognizable riff from How Many More Times, he spent several minutes in one corner of the stage playing guitar furiously and nonstop, culminating in a run-through of the instrumental Django that he recorded for You & Me (which really sounds great, by the way), and would usually play in concert as an intro to either Just Got Paid or Mountain Time. Researching other setlists, it would appear that this extended intro is a track Joe (or his fans) has taken to calling "Black Winter" - mimicking Jimmy Page's White Summer/Black Mountain Side. I wouldn't have made the comparison from the song alone - I don't know how similar musically they are - but as an extended solo instrumental emphasizing the player's virtuosity, they serve an identical role.

You know, when Joe addressed the audience midway through the night, he told us he had a terrible cold and was pumped up on prescription meds, but honestly, if he hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have even noticed. It didn't detract from his playing at all. And he seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of it, as the audience was, too - enthusiastically. I know I was. This time around, I had the opportunity to bring my brother back to see Joe again for his second time, and to introduce a new fan who is now begging me to see him again the next time he comes around. I know musical tastes can be very individual - which is why I really enjoy being able to share what has become my all-time favorite guitarist and musical act with other people. Keep doing what you do, Joe Bonamassa - I look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next. (More Peter Green and Ten Years After covers, hint hint!)

Friday, March 3, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House (2013)


1-1. Arrival
1-2. Palm Trees, Helicopters And Gasoline
1-3. Jelly Roll
1-4. Dust Bowl
1-5. Around The Bend
1-6. Slow Train
1-7. Athens To Athens
1-8. From The Valley
1-9. The Ballad Of John Henry
1-10. Dislocated Boy
1-11. Driving Towards The Daylight
2-1. High Water Everywhere
2-2. Jockey Full Of Bourbon
2-3. Richmond
2-4. Stones In My Passway
2-5. Ball Peen Hammer
2-6. Black Lung Heartache
2-7. Mountain Time
2-8. Woke Up Dreaming
2-9. Sloe Gin
2-10. Seagull

Let me start with a disclaimer: I'm not really a huge fan of acoustic music. There are exceptions (I don't mind the occasional acoustic set to break things up, for example), but that's the general rule. So, if you want a fair review of this album, I welcome you to look elsewhere (I know how frustrating it can be to read somebody's review of something you like, when the reviewer doesn't like it). Still, I'm not going to say this is a bad album just because it doesn't tickle my fancy. Certainly, it's another in a long list of impressive feats - Joe proves his ability to captivate a crowd without relying on the screaming electric guitars he's built his reputation on. And, as typical of any consummate professional, these tunes (a mixture of covers and originals) reveal the melodic strength that lies at their core when stripped down to the bare essentials.

That having been said, one of my primary complaints about this concert (and, from an opposing perspective, one of its potential draws) is the fact that this is not so much Joe Bonamassa "Live and Unplugged" - alone, sitting in a chair with an acoustic guitar (which is something I could more readily get behind) - but Joe with a full acoustic band and a bevy of instruments (some not unlikely recycled from the Black Rock sessions), including a fiddle, banjo, mandolin, piano, accordion, harmonium(?), nycklharpa(!), mandola (apparently different from a mandolin), and lightweight, bongo-style percussion. The result may be a beautiful harmony of sound - something akin to a folk symphony - but I'll maintain that the most interesting tracks are not the traditionally acoustic numbers gathered together here, but the normally electrified ones that have been stripped back and played against type.

Take, for example, Slow Train - the slow-building electric powerhouse that has been expertly adapted to the acoustic instruments available. Or The Ballad of John Henry, an epic showstopper reduced to its folk blues roots. I must confess that this album is worth its price of admission alone for its haunting, acoustic version of Sloe Gin (easily the show's highlight even in acoustic form) - sparse, quiet, and without the usual wall of amplifiers behind which the human emotion sometimes drowns (although, in fairness, one of my favorite things is to hear musical instruments emote in place of the humans playing them). The usually soaring Mountain Time is decidedly less impressive in this context, however - reverting to the forgettable status it earned in its original studio incarnation on So, It's Like That. Dust Bowl, on the other hand, sounds great in acoustic form - owing to the strength of its melody and lyrics - as does Driving Towards The Daylight, an obvious inclusion on the setlist. Meanwhile, Dislocated Boy's adaptation to the acoustic format represents a decidedly more impressive transformation.

It is perhaps surprising to hear Jockey Full of Bourbon on this album, but the strong piano part makes it an appropriate choice, as is the Robert Johnson cover Stones In My Passway, reverted to acoustic form (although you won't mistake Joe Bonamassa for Robert Johnson any time soon). Ball Peen Hammer and High Water Everywhere - both previously heard in acoustic form on Live From Nowhere In Particular - put in a repeat appearance, but this album's version of Woke Up Dreaming is not as impressive as past versions, coming in at only five minutes. Some other older songs make a welcome appearance, including the show-opening Palm Trees, Helicopters, and Gasoline - an acoustic instrumental from You & Me - and the airy slide instrumental From The Valley, hailing from The Ballad of John Henry.

Expectedly, songs from Joe's mostly acoustic album, Sloe Gin, are to be heard in abundance. Aside from the aforementioned title track and Ball Peen Hammer, there is also Jelly Roll, the prettier version of Around The Bend (in contrast to the earlier version recorded for Had To Cry Today), Richmond (one of Joe's better traditionally acoustic songs - it has a bit of the feeling of Led Zeppelin's That's The Way), and the acoustic ballad credited to Bad Company, Seagull. I'm surprised there aren't more songs from Black Rock represented here (aside from Athens to Athens, which fits comfortably in this context - if sounding a bit "fiddly"). From Dust Bowl, the acoustic-leaning Black Lung Heartache (with its infectious chorus) also fits in with the night's theme well.

All told, this isn't necessarily the acoustic album I'd have wanted to hear, but then, I'm the last person whose opinion on acoustic albums should be considered (a fact that I humbly accept). It's one of the few Joe Bonamassa albums I consciously skipped - I avoided picking it up immediately when it came out - and only bought later to fill the glaring hole in my collection (I still need to pick up the DVD at some point - like Live From The Royal Albert Hall, I don't doubt that this would be a concert more fun to watch than just listen to). As such, it's not an album I listen to frequently. But it's worth hearing as a Joe Bonamassa fan; and you might like it a whole lot more if you don't share my bias against acoustic music. But in my case, I'd much rather put Joe's Tour de Force on the turntable for [yet] a[nother] spin. -_^

Rating: ๐Ÿ’ฟ Rare Spin

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Driving Towards The Daylight (2012)


1. Dislocated Boy
2. Stones In My Passway
3. Driving Towards The Daylight
4. Who's Been Talking
5. I Got All You Need
6. A Place In My Heart
7. Lonely Town Lonely Street
8. Heavenly Soul
9. New Coat Of Paint
10. Somewhere Trouble Don't Go
11. Too Much Ain't Enough Love
      (w/Jimmy Barnes)

This is Joe's last studio album of his middle period (what I would call - at this point - his "golden age") - though this period also includes a following acoustic live album, and the monumental 8-disc Tour de Force. Afterward, Joe will redirect his efforts more fully toward producing original material, but we'll talk about that when the time comes. Like Blues Deluxe and Had To Cry Today, I like to group this album together contextually with Dust Bowl. Although the maturity of Joe's original songs (once again among the album's highlights) point toward his future reinvention, the record radiates a loose and effortless virtuosity that stands in contrast to the more deliberate craftsmanship that Joe will apply on his next studio album. This album also contains more covers than Dust Bowl (so, in inverted chronology, this would be the Blues Deluxe to Dust Bowl's Had To Cry Today) - yet the best ones are again those that are less obvious (e.g., surprisingly not the Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf covers).

Of the three original Bonamassa songs on this album, at least two are all-time greats. The album opens with Dislocated Boy, a different kind of slow rocker coming from Joe Bonamassa. The song starts with Arlan Schierbaum's organ, which is a welcome presence on the entirety of the album. There are some acoustic strings in the background, but the focus of the song is entirely on the electric rhythm. It has a bit of a Dust Bowl flavor, but the punctuated lyrics evoke images of a bar brawl ("knock down, drag out, bar fight - knuckles on the floor; and there's shattered glass, and one hell of a scar") - perhaps a modernized version of an Old West shootout. I'd call it a perfect compromise between Joe's musicianship, and listener accessibility.

Driving Towards The Daylight - the album's title track - is a more melodic, subdued affair, but no less seductive. I'd call it gently melancholic, but more wistful than your typical down-hearted blues. Joe's voice sounds fantastic, and the lyrics are perhaps even stronger yet (Danny Kortchmar shares a writing credit) - but I'll refrain from typing up half the song in my review. It's a stronger balance towards songwriting than virtuosity this time, but it still sounds damn fine. The other original on this album, Heavenly Soul, is more upbeat and plodding, with a good guitar tone and some vocal echo on the chorus. It sounds good; I like it. But I can't say it's a song that has left a very lasting impression on me.

Now on to the blues covers. Stones In My Passway is a good rock adaptation of one of my favorite Robert Johnson tunes, but I feel that it lacks the pathos of the original - which, to me, is a song about anxiety and depression ("I got stones in my passway, and my road seems dark at night; I have pains in my heart, and they're takin' my appetite") as much as the blues clichรฉ of "bad luck and trouble". Lance Lopez - another guitar virtuoso I discovered through Grooveyard Records - also covered this song, and this is one of the rare cases where I prefer his high-octane version. Sonically speaking, Joe's recording may be more loyal to the original, but there's a reason I like British rock more than the blues legends upon whose music an empire was built. In Led Zeppelin terms, this song is less Whole Lotta Love and more Traveling Riverside Blues.

And on that note, we come to a cover of Who's Been Talking? by Howlin' Wolf - featuring an audio clip of the original bluesman talking in the intro (leading us into the call-and-response nature of the tune). It's got a swinging rhythm (some would say suspiciously reminiscent of a certain riff in Whole Lotta Love - or, rather, vice versa), but honestly it's a bit of a one-trick pony, and at only three and a half minutes (more than thirty seconds of which is just Howlin' Wolf talking), it doesn't stick around long enough to accomplish anything substantial. It is, however, an excellent preview (if but a small taste) of the "Muddy Wolf" tribute concert Joe would go on to perform in a few years.

Next up is a Willie Dixon tune originally recorded by Koko Taylor, an upbeat song filled with brazen confidence - I Got All You Need. The guitar part is bluesy, but I wouldn't be uncomfortable categorizing it as another of Joe's "junk food rockers". Following that, A Place In My Heart (originally by Bernie Marsden - guitarist of Whitesnake fame) carves out a nice, slow groove, proving that ballads ("no matter who you are, no matter what you do; there's a place in my heart for you") are so much better with a soulful blues guitar lead. Like Dust Bowl's Heartbreaker, this was another great choice for a cover by a surprisingly obvious artist. I suppose even Joe's "classic rock" covers are growing up.

A somewhat less obvious choice, perhaps, is Bill Withers' Lonely Town Lonely Street - but the result is no less impressive. This is a funky tune with compelling lyrics, that culminates in a great guitar/keyboard duel - you don't hear enough of those! - between Joe and his keyman Arlan Schierbaum. Another winning hit out of left field. Slightly less memorable is New Coat Of Paint, a Tom Waits cover following in the footsteps of The Ballad of John Henry's Jockey Full of Bourbon; the instruments sound fantastic, but I guess I'm not as fond of the tune itself. Buddy Miller's Somewhere Trouble Don't Go, on the other hand, is another infectious rocker with a swinging riff.

Like Dust Bowl, this album closes with one of its strongest tracks, and this time it's one of Joe's covers featuring the original artist as a special guest. The song is Too Much Ain't Enough Love, and the guest is Jimmy Barnes. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you might not have heard of him, but he's one of the elder statesmen of Australian rock, past and current member of the band Cold Chisel. He's a fantastic singer, and this is an excellent song, to which Joe's guitar serves as stirring accompaniment. Time and age haven't dulled Barnes' talent, and Joe is in top form, at a point in his career when he's accomplished much, but still has further to go. It's a perfect time for him to release a killer live album - or four - but first, he'll experiment with an all-acoustic show.

Rating: ๐Ÿ’ฟ๐Ÿ’ฟ๐Ÿ’ฟ Frequent Spin

Friday, February 17, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Beacon Theatre: Live From New York (2012)


1-1. 72nd St. Subway Blues
1-2. Slow Train
1-3. Cradle Rock
1-4. When The Fire Hits The Sea
1-5. Midnight Blues
1-6. Dust Bowl
1-7. The River
1-8. I'll Take Care Of You (with Beth Hart)
1-9. Sinner's Prayer (with Beth Hart)
1-10. You Better Watch Yourself
1-11. Steal Your Heart Away
2-1. Bird On A Wire
2-2. Down Around My Place (with John Hiatt)
2-3. I Know A Place (with John Hiatt)
2-4. Blue And Evil
2-5. Walk In My Shadows (with Paul Rodgers)
2-6. Fire And Water (with Paul Rodgers)
2-7. Mountain Time
2-8. Young Man Blues
2-9. [Bonus] If Heartaches Were Nickels

Beacon Theatre is another live album that originally flew under my radar, at a point when Joe's creative output was beginning to exceed the typical one album per year - what with all the side projects he was getting involved in, between Black Country Communion, Beth Hart, and in another year or so, Rock Candy Funk Party. Compared to his last live album, this one feels less like a coherent show than a collection of live tracks, although that might just be because there's no real centerpiece. Sloe Gin is conspicuously absent - although, to be fair, we've heard two live versions by this point already (and will get two more on the soon to come Tour de Force) - as is the showstopping Just Got Paid. This may be a blessing in disguise, however, as you wouldn't really want every live album to have the same tracklist (and Joe has been really great about this). Instead, the spotlight here is spread out between three special guests (I like to informally refer to this album as "Joe Bonamassa & Friends"), none with quite the clout of Eric Clapton (who appeared on Live From The Royal Albert Hall), although I suppose Paul Rodgers comes pretty close.

The setlist for this concert consists largely of tracks from Joe's latest two albums, Black Rock and Dust Bowl - which is just as you would want. The show opens with a live version of Slow Train, giving you a chance to hear what it sounds like in concert. Then Joe dips back to his first album for the Rory Gallagher cover Cradle Rock, before pulling out Black Rock's When The Fire Hits The Sea, plowing through these songs like he's just getting warmed up. Following that is a cover of Gary Moore's Midnight Blues ("in the darkest hour of the darkest night, it's a million miles to the morning light"), which is a moody, slow blues with a searing guitar solo, that won't turn up on any of Joe's studio albums, but that we'll hear again on the Tour de Force.

It's definitely one of the highlights of this show, as is the title track from Dust Bowl, which, in my personal opinion, sounds even better live, with more emphasis on the electric instruments, and an extended solo. Joe also digs out The River, one of my favorites from his earlier days, but, while still sounding good, most of Joe's songs peak early in concert, as Joe continuously turns his attentions to his contemporary material. You might consider this a shame if you like those old songs (as I do), but it's good that so far Joe hasn't had to fall back and rely on past glories. (Even the nostalgia-heavy Tour de Force could be viewed as a ritual to honor the past in order to give Joe the freedom to move forward into a new era). Maybe a day like that will eventually come - although with his talent, I can't imagine Joe ever plateauing, just changing directions - but it hasn't come yet.

The first special guest on this album is Beth Hart (who I would describe as a "gloomy" soul singer), with whom Joe has recorded a couple of albums. I've voiced my opinions on her before; suffice to say, she's a very talented singer, but I don't enjoy Joe Bonamassa's collaborative material with her as much as his solo output. That having been said, this live album features the two best tracks from their first album together, Don't Explain, which are the two that feature Joe most prominently (which makes sense, as this isn't a Beth Hart concert). Those two tracks are I'll Take Care Of You - a dramatic, slow burner - and the rocking blues, Sinner's Prayer - which you might remember Eric Clapton covering on his '90s blues album, From The Cradle. Simply put, it's Beth Hart for Joe Bonamassa fans, which is just the introduction you'd expect from this live album.

The show continues with Dust Bowl's You Better Watch Yourself, which, like most songs in Joe's repertoire, is improved by its live energy. It has a great solo, falling into the tradition of what I like to refer to as "junk food rockers". These are songs that aren't showstoppers, and could even be called "filler" - but not because they're boring. They fill you up and never let you down. In contrast, Steal Your Heart Away, from Black Rock, is more of a "take it or leave it" track - it has a good chorus, but the guitar part pales in direct comparison to the last song. Disc two of this album opens with a cover of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire. On Black Rock, this was a pretty acoustic ballad that didn't do much for me, personally. It's still not one of my favorites, but this live version is interesting, because, though still pretty laidback, it's fully electric.

Special guest number two is John Hiatt. You'd think he'd be performing Tennessee Plates, which he recorded with Joe on Dust Bowl. But instead, he pulls out a haunting acoustic number called Down Around My Place, to which Joe applies a thrilling electric crescendo. I'd say we got the benefit of that substitution. The duo also plays I Know A Place, a song that Hiatt wrote, and that Joe recorded for Black Rock. Following that is a live version of a song I wouldn't have expected to hear in concert - my favorite track from Black Rock, Blue And Evil. It skips the acoustic part completely (ironically, in one of the few cases where I think it adds to the song), making me wonder if Joe consciously steered clear of acoustic music on this live album because he was anticipating the full acoustic tour he'd be doing in the near future. Regardless, this is one of those rare cases where I actually prefer the polish of the studio version.

Joe's third guest is none other than Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame - although Joe's interest in the musician goes back further, primarily to his days with the underappreciated band Free (which is, I'm discovering, a whole lot more than the one hit wonder who put out All Right Now). Like Hiatt, Rodgers has another surprise for the audience. Instead of doing Heartbreaker, which Joe performed with Glenn Hughes on Dust Bowl, they pull out one of Joe's songs from his first album, Walk In My Shadows - which also happens to be a cover of a song by Free! Honestly, I think I would have preferred to hear Heartbreaker, but what can you say? Their second song together, Fire and Water, is a classic Free tune with a killer riff - and one that Joe hadn't previously covered.

The concert concludes with another soaring, twelve minute long version of Mountain Time - which still sounds fantastic. This is a song that hasn't yet begun to lose steam. Following that is an extended cover of The Who's Young Man Blues. Like Just Got Paid, it's a live-only song that Joe hasn't recorded in the studio. I suppose it should be considered Joe's next big classic rock cover, but it only goes to show that Joe's moved into another phase of his career, that I've never gotten as excited about this song as many of his earlier ones. I hate to say this, but it actually feels uncharacteristically sloppy (it really does sound like an encore). Not that it doesn't have a lot of rock energy (channeling the sort of wild abandon that might one day have concluded with Pete Townshend demolishing a guitar), but it's not as tight as The Who's best live performances were. Still, I'm glad it made it onto an album for posterity.

Bringing up the rear - and listed as a bonus track on my CD - is a unique version of one of my earliest favorites from Joe's repertoire, the slow blues If Heartaches Were Nickels ("if wine and pills were hundred dollar bills, I might keep you satisfied; if broken dreams were limousines, I might take you for a ride"). This version is sparser than the one found on A New Day Yesterday Live, with a heavy emphasis on the vocals (but not without a suitably searing guitar solo) - demonstrating how far Joe has come as a singer in the decade separating these two recordings. I love it. This is a song that consistently gives me goosebumps, and puts a lump in the back of my throat, even after all these years. It's amazing, but with the acoustic version on Live From Nowhere In Particular, this is the third distinct version of the song that I think is worth putting on a greatest hits collection (or, more likely, series of collections).

I couldn't call Beacon Theatre Joe's best or most characteristic concert, and it likely wouldn't be one of the first ones you'd turn to if you wanted to demonstrate to a prospective fan what a Joe Bonamassa concert could sound like. But it's still a very good live album; I might even rate it higher than Live From The Royal Albert Hall. Within the next few releases, however, we'll encounter both my top favorite, and least favorite live album in Joe's discography...so far.

Rating: ๐Ÿ’ฟ๐Ÿ’ฟ Occasional Spin

Monday, February 13, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl (2011)


1. Slow Train
2. Dust Bowl
3. Tennessee Plates (feat. John Hiatt)
4. The Meaning Of The Blues
5. Black Lung Heartache
6. You Better Watch Yourself
7. The Last Matador Of Bayonne
8. Heartbreaker (feat. Glenn Hughes)
9. No Love On The Street
10. The Whale That Swallowed Jonah
11. Sweet Rowena (feat. Vince Gill)
12. Prisoner

Following the experimental departure of Black Rock, Joe returns with another solid album in the vein of The Ballad of John Henry, even reviving its American frontier theme. There are some familiar beats here, but this is an album representative of another transitional period in Joe's career. Having attained the polish of a professional artist, Joe would play around for a couple more albums before striking out more confidently as a songwriter. But if his next studio album ends up feeling like a premonition of things to come, this album still features a blend of the themes from The Ballad of John Henry, with some of the instrumentation carried over from Black Rock.

This will not be Joe's last album to start with a song about trains, but as far as opening tracks go, Slow Train is one of the better ones. It revs up like a steam-powered locomotive, featuring sound effects (interestingly, producer/impresario Kevin Shirley shares a credit on this song) that, as I've written before, take the old blues tradition of simulating the sound of trains with one's instrument to its hard-rocking conclusion. The third time I saw Joe Bonamassa in concert was during his Dust Bowl tour, and in the years since, the most enduring memory from it was hearing the band bring this train to life (sonically speaking) right before our very ears. Joe stays in character for the next song - the title track, with its wistful guitar tone that evokes the melancholy mood of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. A Bonamassa original, the lyrics are catchy ("lifting me up, tearing me down; all you give me is indecision, the classic runaround"), and it sounds just as good (if not better) both live and in acoustic form.

The two songs that rest inside the album's bookends are guest spots, and both veer toward country territory (also with piano accompaniment). The earlier one features John Hiatt (who wrote Black Rock's I Know A Place) on a lightweight ditty called Tennessee Plates; and the later one, called Sweet Rowena, balances the line between country and blues, as Joe plays his guitar very much in B.B. King mode over the contributions of Vince Gill. Neither of these tracks are among my favorites - not because they aren't any good, but simply because they wander outside of my musical comfort zone. My next least favorite song on the album would probably be Black Lung Heartache, despite its contribution to the album's overarching concept. It's bluesy, and it rocks pretty hard at times, but it marries the worst parts of my least favorite Bonamassa albums, utilizing the eclectic instruments of Black Rock with the acoustic/electric hybrid approach of Sloe Gin.

In the middle distance, we have a scattering of solid songs to fill out the album. The Meaning of the Blues has a good concept, and a crunchy guitar tone throughout, but it doesn't go that extra mile to distinguish itself, in my opinion. With heritage owing to Little Walter, You Better Watch Yourself is a classic blues rocker with a heavy emphasis on the wah pedal (and whatever Joe might say about the need for restraint, I've always enjoyed a good wah song - White Room, anyone?). The Last Matador of Bayonne (conjuring some of that European imagery from Black Rock) slows it down a bit, evoking a similar, mournful atmosphere to The Great Flood, but inevitably feels like a retread in the wake of that song (not that it isn't still fun to listen to). It's more imaginative, but less raw - and I like my blues raw. And then there's The Whale That Swallowed Jonah, with its upbeat tempo and a guitar part that reminds me of Lonesome Road Blues. It sounds good, but has otherwise not made a lasting impression in my mind.

Then we come to Heartbreaker - a cover of a song by Free (not Led Zeppelin - sorry!) - which is an exciting tune ("I said my maker must have been a heartbreaker"). It features guest vocals by Glenn Hughes, the Deep Purple alum with whom Joe was performing in rock supergroup Black Country Communion around that time. In spite of the musical pedigree of these two giants, I don't think this cover necessarily rivals the distinct sound and attack of Pauls Rodgers and Kossof on the original. I'd be inclined to put it on the shelf with One Of These Days as a cover that doesn't improve on the original. That having been said, it really does sound good, and the more I listen to it, the more I'm liking it.

Opening with sirens, No Love On The Street (also a Tim Curry cover) passes itself off as a direct coda to one of Joe's best recorded songs - Sloe Gin (as a matter of fact, I enjoy playing these two tracks back to back). It doesn't spend its time building up to a crescendo, but is instead solid guitar energy throughout, with Joe playing the way I like best - attacking those notes like sharpened steel. I rate it one of my all-time favorite "deep cuts" from Joe's discography, and my favorite track on this album. As much as I love the way Sloe Gin ends in concert, in my fantasies, I'd love to hear a live version of it with this song tacked on to the end.

The album closes with Prisoner, a dramatic Barbra Streisand cover ("I'm like a prisoner, captured in your eyes; I've been taken, I've been hypnotized") that lends itself surprisingly well to Joe's musical approach - although listening to the original now, Joe's guitar-heavy adaptation sounds like a natural evolution for the song. Without being a traditional blues, it has the kind of emotion and intensity you typically find in Joe's best slow blues. Along with Reconsider Baby from Had To Cry Today, I rate this as one of the all-time best unsung covers in Joe's discography. It's a stunning end to a stellar album from what I would consider Joe Bonamassa's "golden age" (the period that began with You & Me, and continues through the Tour de Force). I don't know if I'd prefer it to The Ballad of John Henry, but it's essential middle-period Bonamassa nonetheless.

Rating: ๐Ÿ’ฟ๐Ÿ’ฟ๐Ÿ’ฟ Frequent Spin