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JOE BONAMASSA The Ballad Of John Henry Provogue (2009)

Joe Bonamassa

No sooner has the latest Joe Bonamasa wave passed over us in the form of a celebratory live album 'Live From Nowhere in Particular', then lo and behold we have another stellar studio album. Clearly this guitar hero and leader of the new vanguard of rock-blues is not hanging around.

For while there have been a number of false dawns in the shape of Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, both of whom have had to rebuild their careers, Joe seems to have the chops, the sense of place and a truckful of songs to back up the burgeoning fan and media interest in his take on the rebirth of rock-blues.

In many ways 'The Ballad of John Henry's is a perfect summation of the strengths of Joe's style. On the title track he's evoking the mythical working class blues hero of John Henry while on 'Last Kiss' he's bringing a riff driven piece way down to a quietly voiced acoustic outro.

Everything on this album has its place, even when he transforms Tom Waits's 'Jockey Full of Bourbon' from its Latino percussive groove and characteristic Waits growl to an altogether tougher guitar driven arrangement. Just for good measure Joe also delivers one of his very best vocal lines on this imaginative cover.

On both the soulful 'Stop' and the self evidently titled 'Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter' there's an additional horn arrangement to supplement some beefy toned solos, while the horns employ an altogether more sonorous feel on the 'The Great Flood'. The latter is a heavy duty slow burning blues with an unexpected additional sax/guitar conversation as Joe deftly delivers his most expressive notes.

'The Ballad of John Henry' is Joe's most important album, not just as a measure of the startling career development over the last 5 years, but simply as a window on the direction in which he is currently taking the blues. And if that really is the question to be asked of all blues practitioners, then this album answers in the best way possible offering a palette of differing hues and colours.

Joe may have temporarily settled for a tough riff driven approach but that will surely please the majority of his fans who have been inexorably drawn to his 'straight to the vein' guitar work and heavily fashioned early 70s's rock-blues style. There's still an occasional hint of Zeppelin in the production, particularly on the title track which mirrors the best moments of 'Sloe Gin', but 'John Henry' is an altogether heavier affair than its studio predecessor as evidenced by the rock solid riffs of 'Story of A Quarryman'.

If anything 'The Ballad of John Henry' is a tad more one dimensional and less spontaneous than 'Sloe Gin', if only because the former started out as an acoustic effort before finding weightier content via a beefed up production. And yet although the focus is more on the guitar and waves of powerful riffs, one of the best moments on the album is the lighter and more melodic blues of 'Happier Times'. The song bides its time with a lovely groove punctuated by some muscular drums before Joe combines both the acoustic and then the electric on some upper register searing notes.

The following slide led 'Feelin' Good', is equally impressive being the result of what sounds like three separate guitar lines, all building to a portentous climax.

'The Ballad of John Henry' triumphs simply because the material flows so well and the stylistic diversity ultimately finds a sense of equilibrium grounded in Joe's intense playing style.

It would after all be difficult for Joe to engage in such a meandering slow blues as 'The Great Flood' for example, without the energetic stuff that has gone before. Similarly the introspective, almost eastern meditative feel of the brief 'From the Valley' works perfectly as a conduit to the closing 'As the Crow Flies'. The feverish playing and neatly distorted guitar tone is the perfect finish to an innovative album.

Where at the beginning of his career 'A New Day Yesterday' announced a new talent, 'The Ballad of John Henry' suggests we are now way beyond confirming that potential and Joe is now pushing the envelope in different directions, all uniquely marked as Joe Bonamassa.


Review by Pete Feenstra

Best of 2009

***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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