It's taken some time for me to come to grips with the concepts of traditional and contemporary blues as well as some of the different blends of blues styles and their offspring and where all these things fit in the universe that is the blues. I want to be one of those listeners who receives music without rules or preconceived notions, but that's not always true for me. The best I've learned to do is to be a listener willing to challenge those notions and break those rules when situations merit. That works for me because it allows me to routinely experience the joy of discovery.
Joe Bonamassa has been a fun nut for me to crack. My good friend Joan Hunt turned me on to him and from the first time I listened I knew I liked him even if I didn't know how to place him on my own personal blues map. I think I know what the problem with my cartography skills was: my map at the time was too small. Over the past several years, since first hearing Sloe Gin, I've expanded my territory and I've found a place where he makes sense in the context of my understanding of the music.
I don't know what a blues purist is anymore or if it ever truly existed. I'm sure there are plenty of listeners who could define the concept and as an academic exercise it would be interesting, but it wouldn't be all that relevant when it came time to, you know, actually listen to the music. Bonamassa has created his own hybrid of blues styles and he's become quite adept at employing them. As we hear in "Steal Your Heart Away," the first song on his new album Black Rock, he's so adept that he can begin a song in one vein and transition on a dime to something different without it sounding forced or ridiculous.
"Steal" opens with the kind of bloozy riff that Jimmy Page and Joe Perry effortlessly cranked out throughout the '70s. The cool thing about the way Bonamassa changes to the stomping start-stop riff of the verses is that he doesn't morph or transition to it, he just does it with complete abandon. Bonamassa's voice and guitar are the focal points and worthy of repeated listens and consideration, but the song gels because of the fantastic support of his rhythm section and the sublime organ accents that fill in a few of the cracks.
"Steal Your Heart Away" pummels and wails like blues-rock from the '70s but without collapsing under the weight of indulgence or bloating the way so much of the music from that era often did, offering a slice of what was good about those bands from that time. It's contemporary and classic, blues and rock. It's Joe Bonamassa, and there's a place on my map for that.