Friday, 18 July 2014

Feature - Joe Bonamassa

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday July 18.

Finding The Blues In The Heart Of Nashville

“I love being the weak link,” laughs Joe Bonamassa. “I love being the guy that gets challenged.”

This isn’t something you expect Bonamassa to say. Electric blues/rock guitarist par excellence and one of the most prolific artists of our time (if not largely ignored by most outside of the relatively small ‘blues’ world), this is a man not used to the ‘challenged sideman’ role. And yet this is where he found himself recently, in Australia in early July adding guitar to a new Mahalia Barnes album.

“We did that record last week, we did it in three days,” he says, referencing the record of Betty Davis covers Barnes brought him in for. “But [as a sideman], you’ll never see me happier. You’ll never see me happier than when I’m just one of the cats in the room… or when I’m the weak link.”

Despite his assertions, Joe Bonamassa is no weak link, whether he’s out front, or just one of the cats. Since the turn of the century, he’s released 10 studio records, at least 11 live records, almost as many DVDs, a couple of collaboration albums with Beth Hart, three records with heavy rockers Black Country Communion, not to mention a slew of other collaborations – this isn’t the mark of a weak link, it’s the mark of a man on a mission.

Bonamassa’s latest, to be released in September which will coincide with his next Australian tour, is Different Shades Of Blue, his first ‘solo’ outing since 2012’s Driving Towards The Daylight. It stands out, amongst the masses, as it’s his first record of all originals, all of which were written with the help of some serious Nashville songwriting muscle.

“After [so many] albums, as a pragmatist, you’ve gotta go, ‘What next?’,” he laughs. “So I just went to Nashville with some ideas, some sketches of where I wanted to go. And these Nashville writers are so good, they’re so good at putting song structure and melody and choruses, keeping the lyrics not trite, no clich├ęs, really deep musical cats. And that’s how it all started, I went to Nashville five times in 2013.”

Bonamassa, armed with just his ideas, teamed up with the likes of Jonathan Cain (Journey), James House (Dwight Yoakam) and Jerry Flowers (Keith Urban), and with their help, Different Shades Of Blue became a reality.

Bonamassa says he was intimidated working with such esteemed writers, again referencing his relishing the “weak link” role. “The only way to grow as a human and as a musician, is to be surrounded by people that are better than you,” he reasons.

The album itself is quite the multi-faceted beast. Helmed once again by long-time Bonamassa producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Joe Satriani, Cold Chisel, et al), it covers a lot of stylistic ground, from storming rockers to Chicago shuffles – not so much a rock record or a blues record, but a true Joe Bonamassa record.

“Well, the songs come as they come,” he muses on how eclectic the record is. “Obviously we wanted to keep a firm footing in the blues… it’s a typical Joe Bonamassa ADD record. I mean, I’ve made a career not knowing what I want to be when I grow up. And I think, because it’s so diverse, it becomes a bit more interesting.”

Whether or not the album brings him wider attention, remains to be seen.  “Where Jack White and The Black Keys succeeded, I failed,” he says. “They were able to make a hybrid of the blues that appealed to teenagers.” Bonamassa is secure in his own space however, and whether it’s recognised outside the blues world, he’s not the weak link, but the essential link, between modern blues and the rock ‘n’ roll it exists alongside.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Record Review - Jenny Queen

Published in the July issue of The Big Issue.

Jenny Queen
Small Town Misfits
ABC Music / Universal

Three albums in now, and US-born, Sydney based Jenny Queen is beginning to make an impact. For while Small Town Misfits, with its shiny, considered production and occasionally freewheeling vocal delivery is, at its core, a pop album, it brings with it enough lyrical weight and raw musicianship to have it sitting amongst most Americana/country releases with relative ease.

Produced by Shane Nicholson, Queen has been encouraged to loosen up somewhat, “The more fucked up, the better”, as she says is the album’s motto, at the behest of Nicholson. It works quite well when she takes heed of the advice, particularly on tracks like ‘Wait For The Night’ with its shimmering pedal steel; ‘Blood Meridian’, which begins simply before flowering into a storming country rumbler; and ‘Austin’, where her voice is complimented by Brooke McClymont’s backing vocal.

Small Town Misfits isn’t an album which will instantly grab you, taking you to some smoke-stained Nashville bar, but rather it’s a grower; a considered work that heralds bigger things to come.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 4 July 2014

Record Review - Tracy McNeil

Published in the July issue of Rhythms magazine.

Tracy McNeil
Nobody Ever Leaves
Vitamin Records


Canadian-born Melbournian Tracy McNeil has been a Rhythms favourite for some time. Her sets at the Mullum Music Festival in 2012 were highlights for me, and since then, I’ve been awaiting her second ‘solo’ record with much anticipation. Her debut, Fire From Burning (2011) was great, as were her contributions to the one and only Fireside Bellows record with Jordie Lane (2008), but seeing the evolution she exhibited in Mullum had me thinking there was something special afoot for record number two.

Nobody Ever Leaves is a gem. The intervening time has seen McNeil grow as both a musician and songwriter, it’s seen her keen to branch out musically, it’s seen her become what I suspected all along – McNeil is a huge talent, an artist destined to make some long-overdue waves on the Australian Americana scene – this record will make sure of that.

“I feel like I’m writing more like I was when I was 21,” says the now 40-year-old McNeil, “when I wasn’t trying to write for a genre. I’m just writing. I kinda feel like I’ve come full circle a bit, to when I first started writing songs. It’s kinda weird, and ironically, I’m [also] coming back to the music I listened to as a kid, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, that west coast sound, and I’m into Dawes right now, who are doing that sound.”

McNeil says she wrote the majority of the songs on the record while driving in her car, something that seemed to free her up as a songwriter. “Yeah, it was a lot freer because I was writing without an instrument in my hand, just singing, and then I’d go and work it out, which chords etc. But they’re the same chords, just in different configurations, but the melodies are a lot poppier because of that freedom, I guess.”

The record is very much rooted in the Americana for which McNeil has become known, but it carries with it the aforementioned pop edge. A stellar example is opener, ‘Wildcats’. It’s a gorgeous, warm, flowing song – it’s country music, but melodically it’s more lighthearted and bouncy, playfully teasing the darker edges it still possesses, an unlikely marriage perhaps, but one which works extraordinarily well. A contender for Song of the  Year.

Another highlight of Nobody Ever Leaves is McNeil’s band, The Goodlife. Spearheaded by guitarists Luke Sinclair (Raised By Eagles, and also McNeil’s husband) and the indisputably solid Matty Green (along with slick rhythm section Rod Boothroyd on bass and Bree Hartley drumming), it’s a band which intertwines itself around McNeil’s songs and lifts them up to where they need to be – even higher, if such a thing were possible.

“Well, all of a sudden, I’ve got five people who can really sing, and that was a big thing, trying to get all those harmonies,” McNeil says of the group, one which has undergone a few lineup changes over the past couple of years. “And they all come up with their own parts. We’ll talk about where we want the song to lift… but I don’t really, with the band, direct what they’re gonna play very often. It’s like, ‘You do what you do, because you’re gonna make it sound awesome’. I’m really lucky because they’re all such talented dudes, and they’ve got such great taste.”

Great taste indeed – they’re playing on Tracy McNeil’s album, a record which showcases a slew of serious talent. “I just wanted to make a great record, we all did,” she says. “I wanted to fully realise every song, and I wanted to take risks, in terms of production. I wanted to make an album that was fun, I wanted to have some songs that were fun and the way to do that is not limiting yourself to what to put on it, or how you’re going to go about it. So I think I just wanted to be free to create whatever it was we were gonna make. I wanted it to be great.”

Nobody Ever Leaves is great. It’s an immense record which showcases the talent of a rising roots music star. Tracy McNeil has arrived.

Samuel J. Fell