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 cliché 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: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

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