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Music Review: Joe Bonamassa – The Ballad Of John Henry

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OK, I'll 'fess up. In the past I have found a lot of Joe Bonamassa's output on the lumpen side. There, I said it. I feel a whole lot better now. So I wasn't overly excited about this, the follow up to 2007's Sloe Gin. But I'm delighted to say that this is an absolute belter, and the best album Mr Bonamassa has ever produced. I can now consider myself converted to the cause.

Featuring twelve tracks, it consists of seven originals alongside five cover versions, including a Tom Waits tune, "Feelin' Good" as covered by just about everybody (including John Coltrane, Muse and George Michael), the fabulously titled "Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter" (previously recorded by Nina Simone and Ike & Tina Turner, amongst others), a Tony Joe White tune, and most peculiarly a turn at "Stop!," originally a hit for Joe Brown's daughter Sam, and later covered by UK soul/pop singer Jamelia.

His last album went straight in at Number One on the US Billboard Blues chart and even got into the Top 50 in the UK, so the pressure is definitely on, especially with Bonamassa hailing The Ballad Of John Henry as "my strongest work to date." And, for once, that isn't mere hyperbole as the working class hero title track kicks things off in tremendous style before the Sam Brown tune is transformed into a slow blues, brass punctuated gem.

On into "Last Kiss," and Bonamassa finally cranks up his guitar for all the fretheads out there. I'm still not wholly convinced that Aerosmith, Journey and Iron Maiden producer, Kevin Shirley, is the right man for the production chair, as there is still the occasional stumble into generic rock, but there's considerably less of it than on earlier releases.

There really isn't a weak track on offer here, with even Tom Waits' "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" transformed into a grubby musical delight. If you're looking for some hard rock, then try "Story Of A Quarryman;" if it's the blues you crave, then head for "Lonesome Road Blues." The aforementioned horns also add some nice touches to Ailene Bullock's "Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter" and, best of all, "The Great Flood," which has a remarkably inventive arrangement. It helps that he's got an all star backing band including ex David Bowie/Rod Stewart bassist Carmine Rojas, former Joe Cocker and KISS drummer Anton Fig and one-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin on rhythm guitar.

He seems to have made a willful, if graduated, move away from the mainstream Seventies blues-rock vibe he'd been mining for a while prior to the more acoustic based Sloe Gin; and it's the increasingly adventurous musical statements that has lifted this album head and shoulders above anything he's done before. Whether it's the slide drenched "Feelin' Good" or the funky swamp blues of "As The Crow Flies" (as previously covered by Rory Gallagher), this is an album Mr Bonamassa can be justly proud of.

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About Stuart A Hamilton

  • Paul Roy

    Thanks for the review. I did not know Joe had a new album coming out. I am fucking psyched.