Why is it that I do not like child prodigies? Jackie Evancho is a wonderfully talented young woman, but even at the ripe old age of 15, I can’t enjoy her music. Why? Because she was a child phenom. In trying to sort out my feelings about child prodigies, I have finally honed in on the childhood incident that no doubt scarred me for life. I used to go to an up the street friend’s house to play when I was in early elementary school. He had a younger brother named Rusty and I think it was Rusty who started my lifelong revulsion to child phenoms. Rusty’s sin? He could color within the lines of his coloring books. Not only could he color within the lines, he could color so smoothly, his coloring book pages looked more like paintings by the old masters. He was two or three years younger than we were and it both impressed and repulsed me how much better he could handle his Crayolas than we could. Yep, that is my story and I am sticking to it: it is all Rusty’s fault.
This leaves me in a bit of a quandary because I now have to face up to the fact that I can no longer hide under this blanket statement. Why? Because I absolutely love Joe Bonamassa and not only was he a guitar playing child prodigy, he has grown into one of the greatest unsung musicians on the planet. It goes against everything I have stood for (or against, if you will) that I can’t hear enough of Joe Bonamassa’s work. Lucky for me, his newest release Blues of Desperation has just arrived.
Born in New Hartford, NY in 1977, Bonamassa had a guitar in his hands at age four and his first band was opening for blues great B.B. King by age twelve. Not only was he opening for King, he was invited to join the King of the Blues on stage and jam, so yes, he did have all the qualifications necessary to be a child phenom. At the advanced age of eighteen, he collaborated with the sons of Miles Davis, Robbie Kreiger and Berry Oakley in the band Bloodline (a whole band of CPs). They didn’t make as big an impact as their record label had hoped for, but the band did get Joe B. more widespread attention. He released his first solo album in 2000 (A New Day Yesterday) and his output since then has been nothing short of, well, phenomenal. Over the last 13 years, Bonamassa has released 15 albums, 11 of which have made it to #1 on the Billboard Blues Charts. Joe himself attributes this to the fact that his fans still buy CDs, but one does not make the charts these days on CD sales alone.
I started to take notice of Bonamassa while randomly surfing YouTube videos searching for traditional and newer versions of songs about the legend of John Henry. I was aware of Bonamassa’s collaborations with Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple), Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin founding drummer John Bonham), and Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Project X) in the band Black Country Communion. It was in a live BCC clip that I found a version of Bonamassa’s The Ballad of John Henry that served as my modern take on this legend of Americana music. Once I started clicking on other Bonamassa videos, I became immersed in his live work, particularly Live at Royal Albert Hall (2010), Live at Radio City Music Hall (2015), and Muddy Wolf Live at Red Rocks (2015).
The Muddy Wolf project was a live tribute to the music of both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and he is following that up with a 2016 tribute called British Blues Explosion that will further explore his musical roots that sprouted from the English guitar players that rocked his guitar obsessed world.
His latest studio effort, Blues of Desperation (2016), is his latest collaboration with producer Kevin (the Caveman) Shirley. Hailing from South Africa, Shirley has worked as a music producer and mixer for many artists: Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Beth Hart, Slayer, Dream Theater, Hoodoo Gurus, Tyler Bryant, Mr. Big, Europe, The Black Crowes, and Joe Satriani to name just a few. Shirley’s work with Bonamassa goes back to You and Me (2006) and they have been joined at the hip right up through Blues of Desperation. Like the excellent live concert DVDs he has released, Bonamassa’s studio work showcases his guitar chops as well as his ability to write and arrange songs in his own style. He collaborates well and the new CD boasts one original (What I’ve Know for a Very Long Time) and 10 other tunes penned with James House, Tom Hambridge, Gary Nicholson, Jeffrey Steele, and Jerry Flowers. Of these, I am only familiar with Hambridge who has worked with another teen phenom, Quinn Sullivan. Like Bonamassa, Sullivan was noticed at an early age and has been mentored by another blues legend; Buddy Guy.
Other notable contributors to Blues of Desperation are drummer Anton Fig from David Letterman’s studio band and keyboardist Reese Wynans. Wynans was an integral part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble from the release of Soul to Soul (1985) until Vaughan’s tragic death.. Unlike some producers, Shirley doesn’t get any songwriting credits on BoD, but his hand is firmly on the wheel. He makes sure that Bonamassa keeps the songs taut and on track. In the liner notes, Bonamassa says that, “Blues of Desperation is a record that I wanted to make as a follow up to Different Shades of Blue as an all-original work.” It seems that he has indeed accomplished what he set out to do.
It isn’t a traditional blues album but it is a blues rock album that blends both ends of the blues-rock spectrum together quite nicely. The opening track (This Train) chugs out of the station driven by an almost clickety-clackety drum groove and Bonamassa’s signature slide guitar punctuating the verses. Mountain Climbing has a slower, heavier beat and features background vocalists that include Mahalia Barnes who popped out because we have heard her recently on some of Lachy Doley’s work. The tom work and combined drumming of Fig and Greg Morrow make Drive a moody piece that features a totally different vocal vibe of the first two tracks. Bonamassa seems to have no trouble slipping in and out of different musical styles, be it vocally or with his guitar playing. All in all, it makes for a very listenable album.
No Good Place for the Lonely is a greasy affair that slips and slides out of the dark city alleys with an interesting guitar lick that drives the verses. The album’s title track again rides Fig’s tom work and a funky guitar-wah wah sound that breaks out into yet another signature Bonamassa lick that connects the verses. Joe B – he knows how to write a catchy guitar lick. The Valley Runs Low would be a good example of the “Nash-Vegas” inspiration that helped fuel this album. It isn’t exactly country but it sure pulls together the country blues with a tinge of Motown soul in the background vocals.
Track seven (You Left Me Nothing but the Bill and the Blues) could have sprung off a Vaughan brothers sequel to Family Style. It has just the right amount of jump-blues feel and Texas twang backed by Wynans keys and organ. Seven segues into the driving Distant Lonesome Train featuring the most tribal sounding drumming yet as well as more stellar organ work from Wynans. Track nine (How Deep the River Runs) starts off like a lazy, languid river that lulls you into its deep, swamplike feeling. Swamplike right up to the chorus, that is. The river picks up the pace and drives on with some interesting dual guitar soloing before hitting the swampy flats again. Livin’ Easy returns to the greasy feel of No Good Place for the Lonely but the main groove here is carried by Mark Douthit’s sax.
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 the recognition that love is what he needs. Anybody who would accuse Bonamassa of being a blues guy who plays too many notes need only hear how he lets this song breath to blow up that stereo type. It is fair to say Bonamassa has grown from a guitar playing child prodigy into a full grown music man. He has grown beyond a kid who can play guitar into a “jack of all trades” musician who displays the ability to be “the master of all” rather than the “master of none.” The child phenom may be closing in on forty years of age now, but as the seventeenth album of his solo career shows, he continues to grow and produce music on his own terms.
The top piece video goes back to a 2007 appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival – back when Joe was a mere 30 year old phenom!