If you believe that Robert Johnson may have made a deal with the devil in exchange for his legendary talent, then you have to consider that Joe Bonamassa may also have been fated to play blues music from the day that he was born. The two men share a birthday together (May 8th) – a mere 66 years apart – and both enjoy an almost supernatural ability in playing the guitar, Bonamassa first displaying his otherworldly six-string talents at the preternatural age of thirteen.
To push our superstitious theorizing even further, Driving Towards The Daylight is Bonamassa's "lucky 13th" album and his seventh recorded with producer Kevin Shirley (7 the Chinese lucky number for relationships) in the past six years (6 the Chinese lucky number for happiness), which by all measures means that this album should be Bonamassa's best-seller to date. All kidding aside, though, the album represents a sort of "back to basics" for the guitarist, Shirley bringing a crack band into the studio that included guitarists Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Pat Thrall, and Blondie Chaplin as well as bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Anton Fig in an attempt to push Bonamassa out of his comfort zone.
Joe Bonamassa's Driving Towards The Daylight
Much of Driving Towards The Daylight evinces a sort of early-1970s classic rock vibe. Bonamassa's original "Dislocated Boy" is a rough 'n' tumble tale of working class blues that heaps lyrical alienation and tortured vocals layer by layer on top of an eerie soundtrack provided partially by keyboardist Arlen Schierbaum. The song refers to Robert Johnson, although not by name, drawing a line between the Delta legend and the young guitarist, Bonamassa's haunting solos cutting not precisely, like a scalpel, but rather in wide arcs like a madman-wielded scimitar. It seems only natural that the guitarist would follow up with a rockin' cover of Johnson's "Stones In My Passway," an obscure but effective choice that echoes elements of Led Zeppelin, particularly in Anton Fig's powderkeg drumbeats and the hypnotic rhythm guitar.
The title track, co-written by Bonamassa, is a bluesy ballad that grows in strength from gentle guitar strum to anguished self-reflection and back, Bonamassa pushing his vocal performance into a more soulful, emotional space that benefits greatly from his elegant, measured fretwork. It's a solid blues-rock tune that reminds of Paul Rodgers and Free, or maybe even Derek & the Dominos. A cover of the great Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking?" includes a cool spoken word segment from the Chicago blues legend before jumping headfirst into the raging rocker, the rhythm section delivering a spry, swinging backdrop for Bonamassa's rattletrap guitar and gruff vocals. The drumbeats positively snap in response to the singer's phrasing, and the guitar solo that rolls out at the end of the song is pure adrenalin-fueled fury.
Lonely Town Lonely Street
A cover of Willie Dixon's "I Got All You Need," is delivered by Bonamassa and band in all of their traditional Chicago blues finery, from the Otis Spann-influenced organ riffs plucking away in the background and the swaggering, drumbeat-driven rhythms to the guitarist's Jimmy Rogers styled guitar licks. A cover of the Whitesnake obscurity, "A Place In My Heart," written by that band's guitarist Bernie Marsden, is delivered as a mournful blues dirge, with lonely horns providing icy blasts beneath Bonamassa's crying vocals and tearjerker guitar licks worthy of Albert King or Buddy Guy.
By contrast, a cover of Bill Withers' wonderful "Lonely Town Lonely Street" is rocked up a bit with big-beat drums, dirty guitar riffs, a big bass line, rollicking keyboard fills, and high-flying Jimmy Page-styled solos (accompanied by explosive percussion straight out of the John Bonham school of destruction). Tom Waits seems to be songwriter of choice for young bluesmen-and-women these days, and Bonamassa mines the scribe's considerable catalog for a cover of "New Coat of Paint," adding a sort of stately malevolence to the tune with world-weary vocals and scorched earth solos that dance throughout the arrangement.
The original "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go" is an unabashed rocker with furious vocals, freight train rhythms, bloody scraps of barbed wire guitar shot throughout the mix, and an overall Bad Company circa 1972 vibe. Bonamassa gives up the microphone to Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes for a cover of his 1987 hit "Too Much Ain't Enough Love." A red-hot slab of blue-eyed soul reminiscent of Frankie Miller, Barnes bellows out the words like old school soul shouter Solomon Burke while Bonamassa puts all those lessons he learned from the great B.B. King as a young teen to work here with a considered, tasteful six-string performance worthy of the master.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
While Bonamassa throws a couple of well-executed surprises into the grooves of Driving Towards The Daylight, much as he did with 2011's Dust Bowl, there's no radical departure from the basic guitar-driven, meat-and-potatoes blues-rock sound that has earned the guitarist a loyal worldwide audience. Still, these glimpses beyond the curtain that stretch Bonamassa's talents beyond their comfort zone are welcome detours, and if takes side projects like Don't Explain, his collaboration with singer Beth Hart, to further push Bonamassa's growth as an artist without turning off his fans (but still earning him new followers), then I say let the man play! (J&R Adventures, released May 22, 2012)
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