Blues-rock guitar Joe Bonamassa is on fire these days...2009 saw the release of his critically-acclaimed The Ballad of John Henry album, followed by a rave performance at the Royal Albert Hall in England with an appearance by British blues-rock legend Eric Clapton (the show documented by the Live From The Royal Albert Hall DVD). Slightly more than a year after that previous album comes Black Rock, a new collection of monster blues-rock songs that Bonamassa recorded in Santorini, Greece with a talented group of Greek musicians.
Joe Bonamassa's Black Rock
Black Rock may well be the heaviest of Bonamassa's eight studio albums to date...heavy sonically, with louder guitars, booming bass lines, and jackhammer drumbeats. The guitarist has always seemingly taken his cue from the blues-inspired British hard rock of folks like Eric Clapton and Cream, but with this disc he makes the jump like Jimmy Page from the Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin. In fact, many of the performances on Black Rock could pass for bluesier Zeppelin studio outtakes save that Bonamassa's vocals are more soulful than Robert Plant's soaring howl.
For instance, Bonamassa's cover of John Hiatt's blue-eyed soul ballad "I Know A Place" is transformed into a Zeppelinesque stomp-and-stammer blues-burner. Against a fat circular bass line and crashing drumbeats, Bonamassa weaves wiry leads atop measurably beefy rhythms. The guitarist's leads here are truly devastating; the entire performance itself would have sounded as much at home in the cavernous arenas of the early-1970s as it does in 2010.
When The Fire Hits The Sea
Bonamassa's originals on Black Rock have also evolved their own particular sonic tonnage. The spry, engaging "When The Fire Hits The Sea" wears its Delta heritage on its sleeve, with subtle Hill Country influences felt mostly in the syncopated, hypnotic rhythms. Bonamassa's fretwork here is quite impressive, running the gamut from British blooze-rock to Chicago blues to Robert Johnson hiding from the hell-hounds on his trail.
Another original, "Quarryman's Lament," takes on a 1970s-style folk-rock vibe with exotic instrumentation, erudite lyrics, and intricate finger-picking that sits just beneath Bonamassa's emotional vocals like a fine gossamer thread. An electric solo rises above the mix with majestic brilliance and adds to the haunting ambiance of the song. Given the obvious British influences on Black Rock, it's only appropriate that Bonamassa should cover guitarist Jeff Beck's wonderful "Spanish Boots" (from 1969's Beck-Ola album). Tackling the daunting composition with no little recklessness, Bonamassa embellishes Beck's original guitarwork while adding his own soulful voice – which rivals Rod Stewart's – above the chaotic instrumentation.
B.B. King's Night Life
One of the highlights of Black Rock is the duet between Bonamassa and his former mentor, blues guitar great B.B. King. Together, the pair tackle Willie Nelson's classic "Night Life," a song first recorded by King in 1967. The two swap guitar licks and verses in front of a full band (with horns), their voices and guitars meshing together into a joyful chemistry that makes the performance a celebration. Leonard Cohen's folk-rock gem "Bird On A Wire" is totally made over here with Bonamassa's elegant acoustic guitar strum, wonderfully supple vocals, with mournful strings adding an emotional backdrop to the song.
Bonamassa isn't afraid to tackle a bona fide classic, either, and he nails Otis Rush's Chicago blues romp "Three Times A Fool" with his lively vocals, inspired bluesy fretwork, and rollicking drum beats. Back on planet hefty, Bonamassa's blues-rock ballad "Wandering Earth" has well-written blues lyrics ("ain't got no money, no place to call my own") and powerful vocals atop a brutally heavy soundtrack of deliciously plodding guitars, keyboards, and drums. "Athens To Athens" showcases the more subtle side of Bonamassa's six-string skills, his finely-crafted guitar right up front astride the song's exotic instrumentation. With his cover of Blind Boy Fuller's "Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind," Bonamassa shows the full extent of his talents as he strums up a pitch-perfect mimicry of the Piedmont blues sound with his intricate finger-picking.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
In a phone interview with Joe Bonamassa, he said of Black Rock, "it's more of a rock record than a blues record. We're happy with the way that it came out. It has a raw, more youthful approach…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."
While the album certainly sounds like a modern rock record, it wears its blues roots proudly, and Bonamassa's guitar playing is nothing short of stellar. If you're not a fan of the man yet, Black Rock may get you there…it's not only Bonamassa's best work to date, it shows the growth and unpredictability of an artist not afraid of trying something new. (J&R Adventures, released March 23, 2010)
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