November 5, 2018

FTV: Joe B Revisited

  We last visited Joe Bonamassa-land after the release of his 2016 album Blues of Desperation (FTV: Joe’s Blues 5-4-2016).  At that time, we found Bonamassa riding the crest of a wave of creativity that saw him releasing multiple live CD/DVD packages of his own work (Live at Royale Albert Hall and Live at Radio City Music Hall) as well as his homage to some of his blues

heros (Muddy Wolf Live at Red Rocks).  Since then, he has taken a similar approach touring with the music of his British guitar heros (British Blues Blast Live).  With the release of his latest album of original music (Redemption – 2018), Dave Everley from Classic Rock Magazine caught up with Joe B between European tour stops.  While their tour bus conversation covered a lot of territory, Bonamassa’s mood was somewhat sullied by relationship problems with his girl friend back in Los Angeles.  The last time we checked, he was keeping time with Mahalia Barnes (a singer who has appeared on record and stage with Joe for several years) and it reminded me of the last track of his Blues of Desperation album.  Back in 2016, we described it as follows:  “The album closes with Bonamassa’s What I’ve known for a Very Long Time.  A slow blues crawler about love, misery, and trouble that leads the blues man to recognize that love is what he needs.”  I wasn’t peering into a crystal ball when I reviewed BoD in 2016, but in hindsight, it does have a little bit of a prophetic ring to it with Joe feeling blue about his long time squeeze.

    A quick run down on Redemption confirms another statement we made about his song writing on Blues of Desperation:  “…when it comes to writing original material, Joe B plays well with others.”  Besides Bonamassa’s own writing credits, five of the tracks on Redemption bear the name of James House who also contributed to BoD.  Tom Hambridge (drummer, songwriter, producer)  added his touch to five tracks. Long time Bonamassa producer Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley gets six co-writing credits to go along with his usual duties producing and mixing the album.  Interestingly, the title track also includes input from one Dion Dimucci (Dion and the Belmonts) whose last album release was his own nod to the blues. Bonamassa’s regular studio and touring cohorts appear on the album:  Michael Rhodes (bass), Anton Fig (drums), Reese Wynans (keys) and his aforementioned girl friend Mahalia Barnes (with Jade MaCrae and Juanita Tippins) on background vocals.

    On the road between between shows in Holland and the Belgian town of Ostend, Bonamassa unloaded a lot of baggage in his conversation with Everley.  Perhaps it could be attributed to being worn down from the rigors of touring, but whatever the reason, Joe voiced his frustrations on a number of fronts.  The prospect of touring life ruining his long term relationship back home loomed over the proceedings. Discussion about the European tour lead to the admission that he had made a name for himself across the pond before he dented the American market.  Joe B’s assessment of his career back home was a bleak, “Who the hell is Joe Bonamassa? That’s what it’s like back home.” Perhaps that was true in the early days, but the fact that he has racked up more Number-One albums on the blues charts than any other artist belies this statement.  When this is pointed out to him, Joe B said, “No, no, no. The only reason I have the most number-one albums in the history of the charts is because of sheer volume. I’ve made thirty-seven albums in twenty years. It’s unsustainable. I have to take a break, It’s impacting on my life.”

    It is no wonder that Joe B is feeling burned out.  Beside his prodigious album output, he and his business partner Roy Weisman over see J&R Adventures which can only be described as a juggernaut of music marketing concerns.  Some accuse J&R Adventures of taking the blues in the same direction that Gene Simmons has taken the Kiss brand. Anything and everything that J&R can emboss with Joe Bonamassa’s name is marketed on their web pages.  Keychains, mini-guitar replicas, tee-shirts, deluxe VIP tour packages, and music are all fair game. Regular mass emailings and the weekly Sunday Cup ‘o Joe blog postings are designed to keep Joe in touch with the masses and vice versa.  As he explained to CRM, “There are a lot of artists out there who look like they are doing very well, but when the tour is over and they pay the bus bills and the venue fees and the agent’s fees and the potato chips backstage and these pesky things called taxes, they come home broke.  I don’t.” As to why other bands don’t follow the Simmons / J&R template, he offered, “(other bands) don’t want to bet on themselves. They.Don’t.Want.to.Bet.on.Themselves!”

Bonamassa learned one basic tenet of the music business early (“promoters are greedy, bands are naive”) and decided to take control of everything in his world, with the help Weisman (on the business side) and Shirley (on the music side).

    When Joe B was still an up and coming hotshot guitar guy, Kevin Shirley was sent some photos of a show Bonamassa had played at the House of Blues in Cleveland.  He offered some pointed criticism about what he saw. Essentially, he told Bonamassa that he looked like a slob on stage and was doing a disservice to the old masters like BB King with his appearance.  Joe B admitted that the critic was spot on, “I was this pudgy guy in an ill-fitting shirt playing to a half-full club.” Though his first cheap suit was an improvement, he stepped up big time for his 2009 Royal Albert Hall show by donning his now familiar Versace suit and dark shades.  The Royal Albert Hall show was an important juncture that CRM describes as, “…a turning point in Bonamassa’s career, the point when he went from schlubby foot-soldier to superstar-in-the-making.  That night, he was officially anointed blues rock’s next big thing when Eric Clapton joined him on stage.”

    Being in control of his assets seems to be working for Bonamassa.  He describes his home in Los Angeles as “Nerdville” because it is the home of a real ‘guitar nerd’.  With some 380 to 400 guitars in his collection, he alternately refers to his home as ‘a museum’ and a ‘theme park’.  Joe’s relationship problems surfaced again when he admitted that other than playing guitar, he really doesn’t do anything else.  “Unfortunately, I do nothing else,” he says, “That’s part of the problem.” Quoting a lyric from the Redemption track Self-Inflicted Wounds (“I’m praying for forgiveness, but there’s none to be found”), Bonamassa sadly confirms, “That song is pretty much on the nose right now…Things aren’t good.  As of right now I don’t know if I’ve got a relationship.” Perhaps it was the post gig drink that had him in a blue funk, but he doesn’t blame others for his current situation:  “There’s a pattern of behaviour from me – one hundred percent from me – that I need to take responsibility for… I was becoming angry. Bitter and jaded.”

    Watching the Muddy Wolf show from from Red Rocks (2014), Joe saw a different, joyous guy on stage that he doesn’t recognize anymore.  Buying more guitars (“Six string dopamine” as he calls it) only seems to make the problem worse. By the end of the conversation, Joe B has resigned himself to get his guitar addiction under control as a first step in rehabbing his life.  By the time the bus reaches their next tour stop in Ostend, he sums up where his head currently resides: “I’m emotionally exhausted – just drained. There’s a wall – and it is coming soon.” If one thinks that success and making money is the be all – end all for a musician, Bonamassa’s comments definitely tilt the balance back to a more realistic perspective.   Success doesn’t make life easy, especially when the success requires commitment, time on the road, and a whole lot of work.

    Not wanting to leave reader’s in as much of a blue funk as Bonamassa was during this part of his European swing, let’s take a look at Redemption a bit closer.  Opening track Evil Mamma is a punchy, rollicking tune that features everything an artist would want as an ear catcher.  Pulsing bass and drums, full horns punctuating the verses and solid background vocals gets your attention.  Add Bonamassa’s gritty guitar break and Evil Mamma is an up beat number that is one of the best he has released.  King Bee Shakedown isn’t the same song but the formula is close enough to the opening track that one could see them as a great one-two opening smackdown for a live show.  If you aren’t tapping your foot by the second verse of King Bee Shakedown, you better check your pulse.

    Molly O slows the pace some but the funky riff will make heads nod along with tapping feet from the open tracks, just at a little slower pace.  The song concerns a 22 year old Irish woman who went down in a shipwreck in the Atlantic. It isn’t immediately clear if this is a Titanic tale (hint: ‘No distress signal was sent’, so no, it isn’t about the Titanic sinking), but the eponymous Molly O could be a composite of many immigrant casualties from any number of ocean born shipwrecks ‘from Halifax to London Town’.  

    Deep in the Blues Again perhaps mines the Irish backstory from Molly O and opens with a jaunty opening riff with a sound that feels like an Irish country reel.  It is a false set up because the tune turns out to be more of a ‘driving back home to you’ song.  Even so, the opening riff reappears in the background at times and the lead guitar break sounds very much like something Rory Gallagher could have recorded.  Four tracks into Redemption and I can’t turn the record off.  Joe B has hit me right between the eyes and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.  We quoted a short lyric from  Self-Inflicted Wounds earlier and it is the first moody blues offering on Redemption.  Perhaps Joe was already seeing trouble ahead during the production of this album as this is the second track on the album (besides the title tune) that brings up the idea of ‘redemption’.  It is another slow burner blues worthy to grace a yet unreleased Best of Bonamassa album.

    Track six (Pick up the Pieces) slinks in on a greasy Reese Wynans piano riff underlined by Paulie Cerra’s sax.  If this isn’t a New Orleans’ groove, then I don’t know what the term means.

From the slip and sliding Pick up the Pieces, Bonamassa ups the tempo into a peppy story song (The Ghost of Macon Jones) featuring some interesting organ and piano fills and chimes.  Ghost rocks during Joe B’s solo section while Fig and Rhodes’ drum and bass work hold the song together.  Just ‘Cos You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should finds Hambridge and Bonamassa mining soulful blues with more punchy horns, organ flourishes and stabbing guitar.  Bonamassa’s soloing can contain a lot of notes, but just when you think he will start shredding the neck, he proves that the title might refer to just that:  one need not play a thousand notes when ten will do.

    By the time Joe B gets to the title track (five writing credits including Dion Dimucci found on this song alone), we have heard rocking blues, NOLA slip and slide, country funk and electric blues.  Redemption starts  the album’s home stretch as an acoustic blues bed that ping pongs between Americana verses and Stax – Motown choruses.  The simple bass drum beat that supports the verse fits nicely with Rhode’s fretless bass work. The background vocals on the chorus are outstanding and well arranged.

    The album’s final three tracks (I’ve Got Some Mind Over What Matters, Stronger Now In Broken Places, and Love is a Gamble) vary in tone from funky blues, a nylon string lament, to a final blues shuffle.  After the lovelorn feel of Stronger Now, it feels good to hear Bonamassa  exorcise his blue feelings with a true driving blues.  Soon after reading about his relationship problems, I saw an ad inviting fans to sign up for a blues cruise that Bonamassa will be taking part of in the summer of 2019.  Let us all hope that he has put his blues behind him and taken a little time off to regroup. Perhaps the emotional turmoil helped him make his strongest album to date, but I for one would hate to see him not enjoying the fruits of his own hard labor!  Listeners will be hearing Redemption on WOAS-FM and future plans include a day set aside for an All Joe B day.

Top Piece Video:  Joe Bonamassa and crew with the title track of his new album Redemption