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Joe Bonamassa - The Ballad of John Henry

J & R Adventures

12 songs; Time 64:28; Meritable - Style: Rock; Pop

The necks of eleven guitars were visible just above the stage-side wall at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa. Had the MVBF folks created a guitar store for the artists, or did all these belong to one player? Befitting a young, absolutely amazing guitar player like Joe Bonamassa, they were all his. He used a different guitar on most every song, even switching guitars in mid-song once or twice.

Since his birth in May 8, 1977 and his phenomenal guitar prodigy story (see bio below), Joe Bonamassa has emerged as a major artist and a major money making business machine complete with merchandising, production, agents, and theatre-show touring including a coming appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. Move over Eric Clapton?

Just as one’s physical body makes dramatic changes between the ages of ten and twenty, Joe’s music has gone through extreme changes as his genius evolves. Gone are the early recording days when he was a young guitar slinger playing with a three-piece band that showcased his fiery, high-octane style. His recordings in the early 2000s showcased a rollicking boogie blues monster playing instrumental excursions and free style blues-rock.

Since meeting producer Kevin Shirley, Joe has toned down the guitar histrionics, polished his singing, and concentrated more on songwriting. “The Ballad of John Henry” continues the journey away from what Joe was a few years back. While Joe considers this to be his “finest work to date” and to be a “Blues” album, it isn’t, and it isn’t!

For example, why would a guitarist of Bonamassa’s caliber indulge in power chord plodding like a heavy metal band? The opening to the title track is heavy thuds, for 47 seconds. But, the most glaring example is track 5, “Story of a Quarryman.” This song is like a stale white bread sandwich with delicious meat in the middle. It opens with plodding power chords for 2:25 minutes. Then, in the middle we get 68 seconds of the wonderful string picking and note bending and blending for which Joe is famous. At the end is 1:25 minutes of more head banging, heavy riff drivel.

“The Ballad of John Henry,” his seventh studio album, isn’t totally devoid of any redeeming values, however. For example, “Stop” is as good as “...Quarryman” is bad. It is still Joe Bonamassa playing mostly fantastic guitar to which his voice is equal, the songs are good, and the band is superb. Produced by Kevin Shirley, the album features seven tracks penned by Bonamassa himself. There are also five covers, including a strong vocal on Tom Waits' “Jockey Full Of Bourbon,” Tony Joe White’s “As the Crow Flies,” and the Newley/Bricusse song “Feelin' Good.”

Like his eleven varied guitars, this is his most varied album. This leaves the listener with choices: if one song or song passage doesn’t trim your hedge, perhaps the next one will.

Born in Utica, NY on May 8, 1977, the now L.A.-based Joe Bonamassa’s musical experience began with playing guitar at age four on a short-scale Chiquita given to him by his father, a guitar dealer and player himself. By the time he was seven, he’d stepped up to a full-scale model and was uncannily mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. At ten, he was gigging at venues in upstate New York, where he came to the legendary B.B. King’s attention. After initially hearing Bonamassa play, King said, “This kid's potential is unbelievable. He hasn't even begun to scratch the surface. He's one of a kind.”

By the time he was twelve, Joe was touring with King, which led to opening slots for many other stars including Buddy Guy, Foreigner, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker and Gregg Allman.

After a collaborative stint in the band Bloodlines, Bonamassa’s solo debut was 2000’s A New Day Yesterday. The powerhouse original “Miss You, Hate You” remains a cornerstone of Joe’s repertoire, as does the slide guitar showcase “Cradle Rock.”

He followed it up in ’02 with his first #1 album So, It's Like That. Blues Deluxe came next in 2003 (the “Year of the Blues”) and is Bonamassa’s soulful tribute to the genre.

Bonamassa’s forward propulsion of the blues continued with 2004’s Had To Cry Today.

Enter Kevin Shirley: Spring 2006 saw the release of You & Me.

With 2007’s Sloe Gin, Bonamassa’s music continued to evolve as did his own identity as one of contemporary music’s most profoundly talented stars.

Note: Joe is also highly respected for his Blues In The Schools program, which educates students nationwide about the legacy and influence of the blues.

Reviewer James “Skyy Dobro” Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL  To See James “Skyy Dobro” Walker's CD rating system, CLICK HERE

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