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 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