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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1508

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Joe Bonamassa: Sloe Gin
by George Graham

(J & R Adventures Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/12/2007)

The blues comes in many different shades, from the acoustic rural Delta blues, to big production numbers with horn and string sections. Over the decades, the music has achieved popularity in cycles, often because some artists would smooth some of the edges or mix the blues with more contemporary or popular ingredients. That was especially prominent in the 1960s when young British musicians absorbed American blues recordings they heard and added their own rock sensibility and a certain degree of cultural transformation, and came up with the British blues phenomenon, that gave rise to some of the biggest names in rock, including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and even Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, who started out as blues bands. More recently, when the blues is mentioned, many rock fans are likely to cite the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, more than, say, B.B. King or Koko Taylor. While these days, many of the authentic, veteran blues artists are seeing their music more widely available, blues-rock artists still have so-called "crossover appeal," finding audiences among more casual fans who approach the music from a rock direction.

This week we have the latest CD from someone who I think is one of the best blues-rockers on the scene today, Joe Bonamassa, whose new project is called Sloe Gin.

Now 30 years old, Joe Bonamassa was a guitar prodigy. His father, who sold guitars for a living, encouraged his young son, who took up a small-sized version of the instrument at age 4. By age 10, he was performing to audiences in his home region in Upstate New York, and came to the attention of B.B. King, who was quite impressed, and who two years later at age 12, invited Bonamassa to open some shows for him. And that led to some opening performance slots for the likes of Buddy Guy, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, and Joe Cocker among others. Later, in 2005, Bonamassa would rejoin B.B. King to be part of King's 80th birthday tour.

In the early 1990s, Bonamassa hooked up some musical offspring, including the sons of Miles Davis, Robbie Kreiger of the Doors, and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band to form Bloodlines, which had some commercial success. Later, after the dissolution of that band, Bonamassa spent time studying voice, and began a solo career, doing his own vocals. He released his debut recording A New Day Yesterday in 2000, named after a Jethro Tull tune he covered. It was produced by Tom Dowd.

Over three additional albums and nearly constant touring, he has been steadily gaining recognition and acclaim. Last year's release You and Me which we also featured on this album review series, debuted at #1 on the Billboard blues charts, and in 2007 he was named Blues Guitarist of the Year in Guitar Player magazine's readers' choice awards.

This time around, on Slow Gin Bonamassa set out to try something different. While there is the mix of material that favors covers over originals as on his previous recordings, there is a lot more acoustic guitar, often mixed with all-out amp-set-to-11 electric guitar work in the same track. The result is a recording with a wider range of textures than typical for blues-rock albums, and with interesting arrangements and use of dynamics, without slacking off on the impressive electric guitar work that is Bonamassa's stock in trade. This album, like his last, was produced by South African-born Kevin Shirley, who has also worked in the studio with Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes and Aerosmith. Bonamassa says that Shirley helped him to realize and expand upon the ideas he had going into the project. The band on this CD includes drummer Anton Fig, known for his work in the David Letterman Show band, Rick Melick on keyboards, and Carmine Rojas on bass. With the exception of Fig, it's the same band as on his last album.

The selection of material is an interesting one, and rather reflective of the blues-rock nature of Bonamassa's style. There are four tunes by British rockers, including John Mayall and Alvin Lee, and one by American blues-rocker Chris Whitley. There is only one by a so-called traditional blues artist, Charles Brown, who often played jazz.

Leading off is that Chris Whitley tune, Ball Peen Hammer, which sets up the acoustic/electric duality that is the theme of the album. It's nicely done, and has echoes of some of the classic British blues-rock sound. <<>>

Bonamassa covers a real British blues-rock tune, One of These Days, by Alvin Lee and Ten Years After. Bonamassa does some rearranging, but it generally is the heaviest, most electric track on the CD. <<>>

The first of the originals is called Dirt in My Pocket, and it's some of the best writing on the CD. It also embodies the acoustic/electric dichotomy. The track also shows Bonamassa's strength as a vocalist. <<>>

The title track Sloe Gin is a cover of a song that originally appeared on Tim Curry's debut album in 1978, and was suggested by producer Kevin Shirley. It's stretched out to over eight minutes, and provides a showcase for very impressive playing by Bonamassa, though the track does at time get a bit over the top in its bombast. <<>>

The Charles Brown tune is Black Night which also one of the CD's highlights, a classic slow blues, though done with rock energy. <<>> Once again, Bonamassa's guitar work is a reminder of the reason for all the accolades he has picked up. <<>>

Also out of the British blues repertoire is John Mayall's Another Kind of Love, though Bonamassa probably comes closest to Chicago style blues on this track as he gets on the CD. <<>>

One interesting inclusion on the album is a tune called Jelly Roll, written by English folk artist John Martyn. It's literally about the pastry, and not about what a lot of old blues songs mean when they talk about "jelly roll." It's done acoustically on a resonator guitar. <<>>

The CD ends with another eclectic acoustic track, and its only instrumental, India, which shows the influence of that country, through its modal sound, and tabla-like percussion. <<>>

Joe Bonamassa's Sloe Gin is another outstanding blues-rock album from a former guitar prodigy who is still rather young. Last time, I called him the equal of the blues-rocker guitar icons who emerged four decades ago with the British blues movement, the Claptons, Pages and Becks. This only confirms my opinion. The guy has the chops with a technical facility that recalls guitarists who approach blues from a jazz background such as Robben Ford and Scott Henderson. But Bonamassa also is seeking to expand his sound this time around with more acoustic textures, and creative arrangements, though without roaming too far from the classic sound. And while his guitar work always begs one's attention, this CD also features some great vocal work on Bonamassa's part, in the tradition of singers like Paul Rogers of Free and Bad Company. His band is first-rate, and the stylistic and sonic variety on the CD is also a strong point. Bonamassa writes in his notes that he set out to sequence the CD in the manner of an LP with side A and side B, as a kind of counter to the iPod-inspired deconstruction of albums into scattered tracks. It works well when listened to as a unit.

Sonically, we'll give the CD close to an "A." Both the electric and acoustic instrumentation is captured well, and the contrast in dynamics is fairly well-maintained.

A lot of the so-called "classic rock" that is endlessly repeated on commercial radio is based on this kind of style. It's great to hear an artist of the abilities of Joe Bonamassa building new music on the sound and moving it into interesting places.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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