Music can be a dangerous profession – not coal-mining deadly or arctic fisherman crazy, but it has its dodgy moments. Life on the road becomes a seemingly endless loop of anonymous hotel rooms and white-line fever, where your only respite from the mind-numbing sameness of it all is to get on stage and perform...and even that takes a mental and physical toll sooner or later. Fame adds another layer of madness to the equation, and commercial expectations often unwillingly overwhelm artistic integrity. Musicians either burn out, flame out, or change gears entirely to escape from the Dante-styled hamster wheel of tour, record, repeat.
Joe Bonamassa has hung in there longer than most, surfing his talents and musical acumen to increasingly greater heights of wealth, fame, and musical achievement. Aside from being one of the hardest-working cats in the blues biz, the guitarist has largely escaped the rat-race by living well and taking detours as they present themselves, whether exploring his fascination with 1970s-era classic rock with Black Country Communion, or capturing R&B lightning in a bottle with singer Beth Hart. Bonamassa's latest dalliance with the unlikely comes in the form of Rock Candy Funk Party, a band comprised of guitarist Ron DeJesus, bassist Mike Merritt, keyboardist Renato Neto, and drummer Tal Bergman, veteran players whose collective credits include stints with artists like Prince, Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), Rod Stewart and, in the case of Bergman, with Bonamassa himself.
Rock Candy Funk Party's We Want Groove
RCFP was formed by DeJesus and Bergman back in 2007 as an amusing side project, later adding Merritt and Neto to their regular L.A. jams. Bonamassa was the last invitee to the party, gigging with RCFP during one of his rare breaks from touring. The musical chemistry between the players gelled quickly, and they decided to capture the magic and energy of 1970s and '80s-era jazz and funk in the studio with We Want Groove. The turbo-injected funk of "Octopus-e" kicks off the instrumental and largely-improvised We Want Groove with a deep, foot-shuffling rhythm and a menacing riff, the song an instrumental workout that melds the best of early Earth, Wind & Fire with jazz-rock fusion similar to Weather Report. The resulting jam may not be to everybody's liking, but it grows on you with repeated listens, as you gradually find yourself nodding your head and tapping your toes in time. Bonamassa's guitar is almost lost in the slippery rhythm of the thing, but a few identifying licks jump out from time to time, Bonamassa getting down like Shuggie Otis.
"Spaztastic" showcases Bonamassa's talents within a different framework, the song welding bluesy Jimi Hendrix riffs onto a chassis built of soul and jazz. Instrumentally, there are a lot of very cool musical textures going on here; Bergman's nuanced drum-and-brushwork is simply stunning in its complexity while the interplay of guitars from Bonamassa and Ron DeJesus is fascinating – energetic, with notes flying across the landscape rapid-fire, changing stylistic direction with head-snapping ferocity but still fitting, seamlessly, into the performance. The title track is an old-school fusion-styled jam that spotlights keyboardist Renato Neto and bassist Mike Merritt; their contributions to the song create a concrete bottom end that Bergman jackhammers with precise strikes and the guitarists embroider with swirling, psychedelic-tinged fretwork.
Root Down (and Get It)
"The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life" is an atmospheric, languid instrumental that makes great use of Neto's ethereal keyboard washes and Merritt's subtle pull on the fat strings, the two musicians creating a miasma of sound that is balanced by Bergman's timekeeping percussive heartbeat. The guitars dance in, around, and through the performance, fleeting across your consciousness with smooth-as-silk, George Benson-styled moments or bolts of icy funk riffing. The ten minutes referred to in the title unfold slowly but pass through their moment of time rapidly, the performance a tour-de-force of musical talent that offers more levels, textures, and beauty than you can take in with a single listen.
The album's lone cover is that of bop/fusion legend Jimmy Smith's lively "Root Down (and Get It)," the song's undeniable joyful performance defining Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins' credo about "funk, the whole funk, and nothing but the funk." Smith was a ground-breaking keyboardist who could rock a Hammond B-3, so the Rock Candy gang allows resident keyboards wizard Neto to bang away recklessly on his Fender Rhodes and Horner Clavinet. The rest of the crew is silent by any means, layering on heaps of melody and rhythm on and around Neto's flying keys. The lone deaf tone on We Want Groove, in my mind, is the chaotic, industrial bang-and-clang that opens "Animal/Work," Bergman's awkward drum solo sounding less like Alphonse Mouzon than Cream's Ginger Baker and his artistic misstep "Toad."
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Some hardcore Bonamassa fans have already begun to turn their noses up at the guitarist's latest musical flight of fancy, but I wish they'd reconsider and give Rock Candy Funk Party's We Want Groove another spin. True, what little blues that exists in these grooves is mostly that which spills over from Bonamassa's (considerably) blues-infused soul, but the album frames his immense talents in an entirely different light. Whereas Black Country Communion proved that Joe B. could play well with others, lowering his profile, pocketing his ego, and participating as part of a group of equals, he was essentially living out his rock 'n roll fantasy with the legendary Glenn Hughes at his side.
Rock Candy Funk Party shows the guitarist joining an existing side project and contributing his skills in a manner that would almost be anonymous if it hadn't been released by his own indie record label. We Want Groove forces Bonamassa out of his blues-rock comfort zone to tackle aspects of his talent that he's seldom drawn down on face-to-face. The result is a stunning performance as part of a talented band that will have us all looking at JB a little differently from now on. Besides, as I've said before, if varying side projects like RCFP stoke Bonamassa's creative fires, resulting in another red-hot and smoking blues album, it just means more cool tunes for all of us! (J&R Adventures, released January 29, 2012)
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