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: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

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