Sunday, 1 May 2011

Beyond Blues - Joe Bonamassa

Published in May issue of Rhythms Magazine (Cover Feature) - excerpt below

Joe Bonamassa

It was a little over a year ago that Joe Bonamassa made his Australian debut, taking to the stage as part of the theatre that is Bluesfest, giving people who’d been listening to his records for years, a taste for what he’s like in the flesh, the real thing up there on stage in front of you.  He experienced a few technical difficulties during the set I saw, but nothing short of Armageddon itself was likely to stop him playing – whether with his acoustic and his voice, or with his electric which speaks its own language, Bonamassa was there to play to audiences he’d not before entertained and this was one set that grew legs and so to my mind, he walked tall amongst the myriad other acts on the bill.

He returns this month, not playing Bluesfest, but on a headline tour in his own right, and with him he brings not one, but two records released since those sets last year, and two very different records at that.  Those who know of Bonamassa know of his versatility – perhaps more so with his guitar than with his voice or in his songwriting – and it’s safe to say that these two records speak volumes as to what this man is able to accomplish, both off his own bat, and in the company of others.

Firstly, he carries with him the debut, eponymous release from what is fair to dub a supergroup, Black Country Communion.  The second is perhaps closer to his heart, his latest solo release, Dust Bowl.  Both records have Bonamassa’s fervent six-string antics stamped all over them, but as mentioned, both are quite different.  One boasts flat-out power, to hell with the aesthetics and a flipped middle finger to the purists and indeed, the faint of heart.  The other sees the man on an evolutionary tangent, one I personally thought him not capable of following.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Regardless, since Joe Bonamassa was in Australia last, he’s crafted two fine records, both of which are beginnings.  The start of something even bigger.


Joe Bonamassa, now 34, began his professional career at the age of 14.  The story goes he played his first paid gig in a club in New York at that tender age, and 500 people turned up to see him play.  Since that fateful night, Bonamassa has gone on to release nine solo records, three live cuts plus a handful of DVDs, not to mention dalliances with various other musical luminaries in a career which has seen the likes of the Washington Post dub him the master of the electric power blues.

A more pertinent tag you’d be hard pressed to find too, because this is what Bonamassa specialises in – electric power blues.  He’s a man many blues purists would write off as a show-boater, a musician of limited compositional skill, an artist capable only of excessive guitar masturbation.  From a purity point of view, perhaps these detractors are right, but it goes deeper than this, as the length and breadth of Bonamassa’s career thus far attests.  Blues itself, as well, is about interpretation, and this is a man who interprets the blues to his own whim and leaves you to do with it what you will.

It’s buried deep within the primordial sludge of rock n’ roll though, that we find Bonamassa when we take a closer look at Black Country Communion.  Of course, those of us in the know are well aware that rock n’ roll is spawned from the blues, and so to find this man thrashing in the dark isn’t too much an odd prospect – it’s not, actually, that far removed from his blues playing, such is the power and verve he displays whilst performing that oldest of genres.

Black Country Communion, the initial idea anyway, came about when ex-Deep Purple/Black Sabbath/Trapeze frontman, Glenn Hughes, joined Bonamassa onstage during a gig in late 2009.  The idea was then floated past producer Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley (Led Zeppelin/Black Crowes/Aerosmith), who’s worked a lot with Bonamassa, and who then suggested they recruit drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian (Dream Theatre/Billy Idol/Alice Cooper).  Black Country Communion was thus conceived, spewing dirty and wet from the loins of rock n’ roll, the blues no doubt a proud father who at he same time wondered to itself what, exactly, it had helped create.

“Yeah, that was Kevin Shirley’s idea, and truth be told man, it was really cool,” smiles Bonamassa on the beginnings of the group, who almost immediately after forming, headed into the studio to record Black Country Communion.  “He said to me, ‘Do you want to do a record with Jason Bonham and Glenn Hughes?’ and both of those guys are my friends, so I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be great’.  So I was thinking we’d just spend a week in the studio and call it a day, you know?  But all of a sudden it came out and it was actually fairly successful, so it’s like, ‘Shit, we’ve gotta tour’.  So for me it’s been a real pleasant surprise, I’ll say that.

“And we were just making a record for ourselves,” he adds as an afterthought.  “We were trying to make a record which sounded like it was made in 1972.  And that was the whole point of it, it wasn’t to be the Arctic Monkeys or any of that nonsense.  Not that they’re a bad band, but we’re not trying to sound modern.  Some music magazines have reviewed it and they said it sounds dated…well, no shit, Sherlock, that’s what we were aiming for, but thank you for the back door compliment.”

Dated certainly isn’t a word I’d use to describe Black Country Communion, released in September last year – perhaps eclectic is more along the lines of where I’d head.  It certainly, in parts, sounds like 1972; the swelling bass of bands like Sabbath, the soaring vocal of Zeppelin, the Les Paul squeal so common to that era, but elsewhere the record strays into ‘90s power-rock territory, courtesy mainly of Hughes’ voice, which to my mind sounds eerily similar to that of Chris Cornell during Soundgarden’s halcyon days, circa Badmotorfinger or Superunknown.

As well, it dips between flat-out power and more subdued (albeit punch-packing) balladry and so paints a picture of a group capable of extending its collective muscle at whichever end of the stylistic spectrum it chooses.  There are some odd moments (the string section during the latter part of ‘No Time’, for example, not sure where that came from), and there are some great moments (the call and response between Hughes’ vocal and Bonamassa’s guitar on opener, ‘Black Country’) – overall, this seems like four guys having a hell of a lot of fun, making some music, blowing off some steam.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what’s it’s all about?

So fun, in fact, was the making of this record, that another is already in the can.  Tentatively titled 2, this is a record which sees Black Country Communion realising they’ve got something here, and expanding upon it.  “I think the second one is way better than the first,” Bonamassa enthuses.  “Not that the first one was bad, but here we had more time to really explore our different options (the debut was recorded in five days), the music is deeper on this second one.  It’s the same kinda vibe, I mean, we play a certain way, the band itself has a certain sound…we can’t be anything that we’re not.  So yeah, it’s wicked, and it’s already done.”

2 is slated for release around June of this year showing that Black Country Communion are in it for the long haul, a supergroup worth its weight in musical gold.  This brings us then, to Bonamassa’s next offering, also worth its weight, his ninth solo record, Dust Bowl.


Samuel J. Fell

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