Friday, February 15, 2008
Review by Nightwatcher
Well, the wait is finally over. 'Sloe Gin', the long awaited follow up to 2006's stellar 'You & Me', reaffirms the fact that in the world of blues rock, Joe Bonamassa literally has no peers. One of the most exciting guitarists to come along in decades, this is the work of an artist at the peak of his abilities.
But to classify Bonamassa as merely a blues musician would be a great disservice. For while his albums have consistently reached #1 on Billboard's Blues Album Charts, with this album he transcends what is normally accepted in the traditionally purist blues circles, coming up with a wonderfully diverse collection that defies simple categorization. One which may be looked at as his maturation, at the age of 30, into his own man, artistically speaking.
No longer tethered to tradition, the guitarist shines like the sun, as hot as Phoenix or Las Vegas on a summer afternoon. Not just an incredible display of in-your-face guitar wizardry, this album showcases a broader instrumental palette than ever before. Apparently not content to just be known as a guitarist's guitarist, after being voted Guitar Player's Blues Guitarist Of The Year 2007, Bonamassa has instead concentrated on the song and, consequently, the album as a whole.
The album kicks off with a take on the late Chris Whitley's "Ballpeen Hammer". Starting out with rollicking acoustic guitars, the track suddenly erupts into a Zeppelin-esque rocker, Anton Fig's drums powering the song reminiscent of John Bonham ala "When The Levee Breaks". As the track shifts into overdrive, Bonamassa unleashes a solo which recalls the work of Jimmy Page during the latter's later day Zep era phase, unveiling a new sonic tapestry to add to an already overstuffed arsenal of licks, and totally unlike anything he's laid down in the past.
Shifting into a bluesy shuffle akin to 'You & Me's' "High Water Everywhere," on "One Of These Days", he takes the Ten Years After classic in a new direction, expertly conveying the feel of a man pining away in a prison cell, dreaming of a pardon, before morphing into an Allman Brothers/Derek & The Dominos like coda. Not too dissimilar to "Layla," the shift seems to signify his liberation, being in the arms of the woman who's "Got her red dress on". Bonamassa shows his mastery of slide guitar here, conjuring up memories of Duane Allman on the previously mentioned track, while Rick Melick's stately keyboards also lend an extra texture.
Next, we move on to an absolutely amazing cover of Bad Company's classic "Seagull". I've always liked the song in its original incarnation, but I've got to say that after listening to both back to back that I much prefer this version. This is a prime example of the attention paid to the vocals, as Bonamassa delivers a stunning performance, underpinned by slightly phased guitars and keyboards, which rivals Paul Rodgers. High praise indeed, but Joe more than holds his own in comparison. Any lingering doubts concerning his prowess as a vocalist, however misguided, will completely dissipate upon hearing this track. Bogie Bowles turns in a fine, understated drum performance on the track as well.
"Dirt In My Pocket", the first of 5 original compositions (not counting the outro of "One Of These Days") is a grinding, mid-tempo blues rocker which strays away from the norm during the breakdown, where the music switches to a rather Middle Eastern style, replete with tabla courtesy of Melick, before returning to the Mississippi Delta once again. This is one of several tracks which if radio were more accepting, would have the potential to be at the very least a sizeable hit.
While still remaining fairly true to the original arrangement, the title track is a true case of a cover version being infinitely better than the original. The vocals on this track are amazing, ranking up as one of Joe's finest performances ever, completely decimating Tim Curry's on the Bob Ezrin/Michael Kamen penned prototype. I had the privilege of hearing an early version of the track, featuring Doug Henthorn of The Healing Sixes, who did an incredible job on 'You & Me''s sterling cover of Led Zeppelin's "Tea For One". While the vocals on the early version were outstanding, Bonamassa's outpouring of emotion bathes the track with a sense of realism which sucks you in, never letting you go for over eight minutes.
Starting off slowly, building in intensity and tension, aided by Jeff Bova's synthesized strings, the first sharp blast of guitar crackles and burns. The notes lash out against your brain like a bull whip before reeling off a short burst of stuttering toggle switch licks. Quickly followed by a quick flurry of wah inflected playing recalling the finest of Clapton in Cream, heading off towards the sun in the first melancholy yet exhilarating solo that's guaranteed to take one's breath away. At around the five minute mark, unexpectedly police, or more possibly ambulance sirens enter the mix, strongly suggesting that the song's protagonist has succumbed to the intense pain and loneliness and done himself in, creating a powerful, harrowing moment. Before one can catch their breath, thundering drums herald a second soaring solo which stands among the best of his career, conceivably significative of a soul's journey towards the heavens.
Where does one go after that? Well, on this album Bonamassa and co. come off similar to a modern day Jeff Beck Group on "Another Kind Of Love". While being a cover of the John Mayall classic which first appeared on 1967's 'A Hard Road,' featuring on guitar none other than soon to be Fleetwood Mac legend Peter Green, the stinging guitar intro is more evocative of an updated Beck solo from 'Truth'. Tough, hard rocking blues is the name of the game here. Although relatively short at a little over three minutes, it's yet another impressive track on an album chock full of them.
Slowing things down, we encounter a remake of "Around The Bend," originally on the earlier 'Had To Cry Today' release. This time redone as originally intended, the sweet acoustic sound is in marked contrast to the searing electric work earlier on the album, providing a nice change of pace. A cover version of Charles Brown's "Black Night" continues the journey into the dark side of the blues, featuring dynamics which wouldn't sound out of place on a Led Zeppelin album. The comparison is an apt one, as there are many spots throughout where the influence of Jimmy Page shines through in the playing and production.
Producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, The Black Crowes) must've taken extensive notes while working with the English guitar legend, as the same mixture of light and shade favored by Page is on display throughout, taking the proceedings to a much higher level than most recordings, blues or otherwise, these days. John Martyn's acoustic blues "Jelly Roll," the languid southern rock of "Richmond" and the raga-like instrumental "India" round off the album in a more meditative mood. The latter is another departure from what is normally expected on a blues album. For such experimentation Bonamassa should be lauded for stretching the boundaries once again.
B.B. King once famously said of the great Peter Green, "Peter Green is the only living guitarist who ever made me sweat". Well, the way that Bonamassa is playing these days, I'd imagine that B.B., upon hearing 'Sloe Gin', will be ordering a few cases of Right Guard. This is an album which begs to be listened to as a whole to be appreciated fully, not taken in bits and pieces. The album's flow, inspired by Rod Stewart's classic 1969 debut album, and the cohesiveness, are commendable. A very well-rounded offering which scores on all levels, I predict this will be the benchmark against which all future releases in the blues rock genre are compared to in the future. A more hard rock album than pure blues per se, the so called "purists" will likely blow a fuse as this one goes to the top of the charts. But whether they like it or not, Bonamassa is the past, present and future of the blues rolled up into one. 10/10 www.jbonamassa.com