Blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa is coming off one of his best years yet in 2009: his critically-acclaimed CD The Ballad of John Henry was released in February, and a career-making DVD, Live From The Royal Albert Hall, was released in October. Britain's Classic Rock magazine named Bonamassa its "Breakthrough Artist of the Year" for '09 and audiences in both Europe and the United States thrilled to the guitarist's scorching fretwork and dynamic performances.
It's hard to believe all that Bonamassa has accomplished during his career until one considers that the guitarist has been burning up the fretboard for some 20 years now. One of three talented teenage guitar wunderkinds - the others being Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd - to emerge from the long shadow of the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan during the 1990s, Bonamassa didn't release his solo debut album until the year 2000. Since that time, Bonamassa has been more prolific than his peers, and has showed an ambition to improve his craft in every area. With the release of Black Rock, Bonamassa has taken another step towards cementing his growing legacy as one of the blues greatest young talents.
Bonamassa on Black Rock
Taking the album's name from the studio it was created in, Bonamassa recorded Black Rock in Santorini, Greece with a talented bunch of Greek musicians. "Originally our goal was to write and record half the record," says Bonamassa of his trip to Greece. "But we had such a nice stream of creativity over there that we ended up with the whole record. The whole thing for me was really great." Black Rock may be heavier than anything that Bonamassa has recorded previously, incorporating new ideas and lyrical themes without departing radically from the guitarist's trademark sound.
"It's more of a rock record than a blues record," says Bonamassa. "We're happy with the way that it came out. It has a raw, more youthful approach...I think that 'youthful' is the term that I'd use to describe it. We could have milked the John Henry thing forever, but for me, I wanted to make a statement, we weren't just resting on our laurels, that we were doing something that we're proud of, something new."
A Curious Choice of Cover Songs
Aside from Bonamassa's usual well-written original material, Black Rock includes a number of curious, and nicely performed cover songs. One of the biggest surprises is Bonamassa's take on Leonard Cohen's folk-rock classic "Bird On A Wire" (covered previously by everybody from Joe Cocker to Willie Nelson). "That was a song that I'd heard only three times, and said 'that's a good lyric, something I could really do something with,' so I kind of re-wrote it for me and my voice and I'm really happy with the way that it came out."
Another choice cover is that of John Hiatt's "I Know A Place." Says Bonamassa, "It's all about a good lyric...a good lyric saves all. John is a great lyricist and told a great story. I thought I could put my bits on there and give it a go..." While the guitarist's choice of Blind Boy Fuller's "Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind" may be at the opposite end of the blues spectrum that Bonamassa usually explores, he does a great job on Black Rock of re-creating Fuller's Piedmont blues guitar style.
"That was the last song that we recorded for the whole album," he says of the Fuller song. "We had maybe too much fun...we had a bunch of wine, a big bar-b-que cookout, recorded it as a campfire song." As for his unlikely choice of a Piedmont blues song, Bonamassa says "I'm like the Line 6 POD of guitar players...I could play anything if I had to. That was a fun track."
B.B. King's Night Life
One of the high points of Black Rock is the collaboration between Bonamassa and B.B. King on the classic Willie Nelson song "Night Life." King originally recorded the song for his 1967 album Blues Is King, and the two men revisit the tune here, swapping vocals and guitar licks in recreating the song. Blues guitar great King, Bonamassa's friend and mentor, eagerly agreed to perform on the album.
"I asked if he wanted to do a track with me and he graciously said 'yes' so we did it," says Bonamassa. "I've known him for 20 years, and he's the reason that we're having this conversation at the moment." Bonamassa first performed with King at the age of twelve, and found a champion in the unassuming blues legend. "It was very intimidating, it's always intimidating being around an icon of that stature," says Bonamassa of King. "He is such a nice guy, one of my favorite people in the world, and I have nothing but the highest respect for that man. He's one of my heroes. He defines the genre."
Continued Creative Growth
Black Rock not only displays a heavier rock sound, but also spotlights Bonamassa's continued creative growth as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. "We have eleven albums out, so you do your best not to repeat yourself over and over again," he says. "The more albums you do, the more experience you get, and hopefully you grow. Some artists flourish; some artists, their best work is their first album. I like the fact that our later records have been getting better...for me, that's good sign. I really like making albums now, where before I kind of dreaded them."