Joe Bonamassa: Blues of Desperation

By Andrew Catania

Having settled for ‘Blues of Desperation’ rather than ‘Blues and Desperation’, Joe Bonamassa transforms the inherent edge of his album title into a powerhouse record that showcases some of his best recorded moments in recent times.

Right from the opening (heavy) D Major chord of first tune “This Train” – guitar tuning is likely DGCFAD – you know you’re in for some ballsy blues rock, exactly the type that attracted many fans to him in the first place. Mind you, this is a guy influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Cream, Leslie West, and Frank Marino in that regard.

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‘Blues of Desperation’ lives up to its name in a positive way, as it sounds like the work of a performer taken out of his comfort zone and pushed to a new high. The album reinforces Joe’s own style through self-penned songs, while harnessing some of his fieriest solos to date. As a guitarist, Joe proudly stands at the top of his own mountain to survey the great beyond, while refusing to believe that’s all there is.

Recorded as a power quartet (although there are some significant keyboard parts), the main inspiration behind the album appears to be producer Kevin Shirley’s fascination with Led Zeppelin style bombast. To that end he’s recruited a second drummer Greg Morrow and to smooth out the jagged edges. Look no further than the bone crunching riffs of ‘Mountain Climbing’ as the first of several examples of a flashback to the early 70’s, though newer fans will no doubt rejoice in Joe’s fiery attack, as his solo slashes through the enveloping backing track.

Leading into this album Joe says he wanted to explore new horizons in the blues. And he does so, on an album that tempers a big shoulders rock approach with heartfelt blues sensibilities. The opening ‘This Train’ uses the first of two familiar train metaphors, the former being a slide-led opus on which he pushes his vocals to the limit to bring gravitas to some workaday lyrics, as his incendiary soloing seals the deal. ‘Distant Lonesome Train’ employs a pungent drum pattern, before he stretches out in a stellar display of guitar mastery, nailed by big wall of sound and stereo panning.

He digs deep for the equally intense and suitably titled ‘How Deep This River Runs’, with a coruscating solo that reflects the depths of the ensemble playing.

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The sourly titled ‘You Left Me Nothin’ But The Bill and The Blues’ actually gives the album a lift, via a tension building piano-led bridge, which is resolved by two succinct solos with a gnawing tone. Since becoming a national Top 10 chart topper with ‘Sloe Gin’, Joe has been treading a delicate line between staying innovative, while satisfying fans expectations.

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He’s also become a barometer for just how far a blues rock artist can go while staying loyal to his blues calling. In that context, the title track answers a lot of questions, with its bold sonic experimentation, wild slide guitar and additional Zeppelin thrust.

 But producer Shirley knows his pupil well, as half way through the song Joe’s solo takes off like a jet plane in a blaze of heavy guitar-driven intensity over deft electronics and an eerie drop down. The sultry groove and filmic tremolo motif of ‘Drive’ emphasizes the album’s light and shade and essential flow, while also showcasing the more reflective side of Joe’s song writing. The similarly soulful ‘The Valley Runs Low’ is Glen Clarke/Delbert McClinton territory, with one eye on the radio, while he leans into the late night horn-led acoustic groove of Livin’ Easy.’

 The album is book ended by the horn-led slow blues and suitably titled ‘What I’ve Known for a Very Long Time’ which from a subjective viewpoint could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Bonamassa’s mastery of the blues.

 Joe Bonamassa has made his mark over the years as a must-see live act and non-stop recording artist, starting with debut record A New Day Yesterday (2000). His numerous live releases –including Live from the Royal Albert Hall – are killer, of course. On both fronts, he tackles old blues and classic rock covers with as much authority as he puts into his own songs. But with his two most recent albums – including 2014’s Different Shades of Blue – it seems he has finally gotten more confident with just recording his own music – a very short Hendrix cover aside on DSOB.

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That confidence has now resulted in what is in my opinion Bonamassa’s best and most wide-ranging, yet focused studio effort to date: Blues of Desperation. Without a doubt, will be a top seller in 2016.

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