It's hard to believe the impact that guitarist Joe Bonamassa has had on the blues and blues-rock scenes since the October 2000 release of his exhilarating debut album, A New Day Yesterday. In less than nine years, Bonamassa has released six studio and two live albums, his mix of 1970s-influenced hard rock, British blues-rock, and pure electric blues redefining the genre for other up-and-coming artists while his breathtaking technical skills have earned Bonamassa bona fide "guitar god" status.
The Ballad of John Henry is Bonamassa's seventh studio album, and the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2007 release, Sloe Gin. Much like his previous work, The Ballad of John Henry is a high-octane showcase for Bonamassa's blues-rock fervor and stunning six-string wizardry.
Joe Bonamassa's The Ballad of John Henry
With waves of shimmering psychedelic-blues guitar notes flying out of the speakers, Bonamassa opens The Ballad of John Henry with the title cut. A strong dino-stomp blues-rock dirge, the song dances like an angel on the head of a pin. Both a menacing, John Campbell-styled swamp-blues firecracker and a lush, foreboding prog-rock scorcher complete with full orchestral backdrop, the song also features plenty of Bonamassa's meaty riffs laid against a thick, Zeppelinesque rhythm.
This performance is a heady way to open an album, throwing blues and blues-rock conventions out the back door while Bonamassa builds a bigger, better beast for The Ballad of John Henry. The young guitarist lures the listener back into the purist fold with the Stevie Ray-styled deep blue ballad "Stop!" An atmospheric, emotional performance, Bonamassa's guitar weeps tears of pain and heartbreak, his soulful vocals balanced by dynamic fretwork and perfectly-timed blasts of mournful horns.
The Last Kiss & Other Bonamassa Originals
Another Bonamassa original, "Last Kiss," sits firmly in the artist's usual style. A driving, no-frills rocker with locomotive rhythm, runaway lead guitar, keyboard riffs that hang around in the mix like ghosts in the rafters, and pleading vocals that teeter on the edge of desperation, "Last Kiss" is an exhilarating ride down the blues-rock tracks.
"Lonesome Road Blues" is another barn-burner in the manner of 1960s-era British blues-rock titans Free. Featuring one of Bonamassa's best vocal performances, the song's steady rhythm is complimented by an undercurrent of honky-tonk style piano-pounding and the guitarist's imaginative six-string work.
"Happier Times" displays the full bore of Bonamassa's talents, expanding his underrated skills as a vocalist by asking him to get quieter, while supporting the song's subdued and powerful voice with elegant and measured guitar that eschews the slash-and-burn approach typical of the blues-rock style.
Tom Waits, Tina Turner & Tony Joe White
Bonamassa chooses an interesting and stylistically-challenging trio of cover tunes for The Ballad of John Henry. An inspired reading of Tom Waits' "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" retains all of the original's shambling darkness while emphasizing the song's inherent blues with wickedly inventive and slightly discordant solos that stretch the limits of Bonamassa's skills.
On the other side of the coin, Bonamassa's version of Ike & Tina Turner's "Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter" takes the song into foreign territory, keeping the song's original funk and soul roots, including blaring horn choruses, and adding a rocking soundtrack and punctuating the rapid-fire lyrics with darts of down-n-dirty guitarplay.
Tony Joe White's Southern rock classic "As The Crow Flies" is played fairly straight, with solid vocals, a rambling percussive soundtrack, and down-home chicken-pickin'.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
There's no doubt in my mind that The Ballad of John Henry is a career-advancing album on the part of Joe Bonamassa. Following Sloe Gin, which concentrated the listener's focus on Bonamassa's vocals, The Ballad of John Henry places greater emphasis on the artist's growing songwriting skills, with seven of the album's twelve tracks penned by Bonamassa himself.
Joe Bonamassa has always been a great blues guitarist, and The Ballad of John Henry certainly includes enough ripped-and-torn solos and inventive riffs to keep the blues-rock fan happy. But the artist also uses the album to challenge his own preconceived notions of his music, slipping in various elements of change beneath the surface that work to make The Ballad of John Henry Bonamassa's most interesting and entertaining album to date. (J & R Adventures, released February 24, 2009)