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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1451

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Joe Bonamassa: You and Me
by George Graham

(Premier Artists 60282 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/19/2006)

The popularity for blues seems to come in cycles. The current period has been particularly long-lived, and that has really been a great boon for the music, and artists who make it. A previous big blues boom took place in the 1960s when a generation of rock fans discovered the music indirectly though then-young, largely British musicians who heard recordings by some of the original artists of the 1940s and 1950s Chicago scene and transmogrified the music in their own way. Some of the biggest names in rock were part of that British blues scene, including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, and even Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues. The current blues scene is a bit more authentic, if you will, hewing more toward the classic and traditional sounds, as played by veteran American blues artists.

But the British-influenced blues-rock scene was also the source of a lot of what has become the lexicon of so-called "classic rock," and led to styles from heavy metal to Southern rock. This week, we have a new recording that, though blues-based, is definitely in the electric blues-rock tradition going back to the 1960s. It's the latest by guitarist Joe Bonamassa called You and Me.

Joe Bonamassa grew up in Upstate New York, the son of a guitarist and guitar dealer, so there were always lots of guitars around the house. Young Joe picked one up at age four, albeit a small-size model, and started playing before most start kindergarten. He graduated to a full-size guitar by age seven, and by 10, was already performing at local blues venues. At age 12, he opened for a B.B. King performance and was given high praise by the blues master. Years later in 2005, Bonamassa was asked to join with King in his recent 80th birthday tour.

Bonamassa eventually formed a band called Bloodline which had something of a hit with their self-titled release, before the band fell apart. Previously just a guitar player, Bonamassa studied with a vocal coach and assumed lead vocal duties for his debut solo release A New Day Yesterday, which was produced by legendary producer Tom Dowd.

He has been recording ever since, with You and Me being his fourth release. He has also been involved with a program called Blues in the Schools, which was started in 2003, which was declared the "Year of the Blues," and earlier this year, he was nominated as the youngest member of the Blues Foundation board of directors.

While his recordings have run from more traditional blues and collections of blues standards to originals, this CD is one that he admits in his liner notes, is intentionally not a purist blues album. He says that he and his bandmates "concentrated on making heavy music played in a blues style." And they there were less concerned with what is and is not the blues than in trying to stretch some boundaries.

In truth, there are not a lot of boundaries stretched on this recording. It's very much in the classic blues-rock mode, with a lot familiar influences to those with long memories, including even a string section. But it has been a long time since an album like this has been made, and this one gets it all right, and does it very well.

Bonamassa is joined by a band including Rick Melick on keyboards, Carmine Rojas on bass, and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham on drums. Bonamassa remains the guitar collector, listing 19 different guitars he uses on the CD. There is also an appearance by Pat Thrall, who was part of the Pat Travers Band a couple of decades ago, and the producer was South African-born Kevin Shirley, who has worked with Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes and Aerosmith, among others. So the CD definitely has rock credentials. The material is mostly cover tunes, with four of the eleven tracks being originals by Bonamassa. But the guitarist puts his spin on the cover material, which comes from sources ranging from traditional blues pioneer Charley Patton to Led Zeppelin.

Leading off is the Charley Patton tune, High Water Everywhere, which is given a kind of down-in-the-swamp sound, and the lyrics makes reference to New Orleans. <<>>

The first of the originals is Bridge to Better Days, which is classic blues-rock. Pat Thrall plays the other guitar and trades solos with Bonamassa. <<>>

One of the highlights of the album is another of the original pieces, Asking Around for You. It may be a new song, but it sounds like a classic. It's a slow blues that turns into a big production number with a string section, and lots of big brassy guitar. <<>>

Another slow blues is So Many Roads, a song made famous by Otis Rush. Minus the strings, it shows off some of Bonamassa's best playing, and it's another of the CD's best tracks. <<>>

There are a couple of acoustic or partially acoustic tracks. Tamp Em Up Solid, credited to Ry Cooder, shows that Bonamassa is no slouch on the acoustic guitar, with a very nice, subtle treatment. <<>>

One of two instrumentals is called Django, which starts and ends on a spacey note, surrounding the big-production blues-rock guitar exhibition. It does get a bit over the top toward the end, recalling the Hendrix-esque excesses of the 1960s. <<>>

The other instrumental, called Palms Trees, Helicopters and Gasoline, is a great high energy acoustic guitar solo of the kind that rockers used to include on their albums back in the day. <<>>

The longest track on the CD is the Led Zeppelin cover, a relatively obscure tune called Tea for One. And true to Led Zep form, it gets carried away with itself, with all the cliches piled on. <<>>

Bonamassa fulfills another requirement for a blues-rock album by including a prototypical blues boogie, Torn Down, another Bonamassa original. It reflects the time he worked with Southern rockers. <<>>

These days there is a lot of fairly authentic blues being made and released on CD. The blues-rock style popularized in the 1960s by mainly British rockers is not a style that is being made much. But Joe Bonamassa has created a new recording that pays tribute to the genre, and for the most part authentically recreates is, down to some of its occasional excesses. But Bonamassa's new CD You and Me, for the most part is very tasteful and the musicianship is first-rate. He's an outstanding guitarist who approaches the blues from a rock perspective. One can't really say that this territory has not previously been covered, but one could say that about almost any blues album. The key is the performance and this CD has what it takes.

Our grade for sound quality is about a A-minus. It's a rock album, so there's not a lot of dynamic range, but the acoustic tunes are well-handled, and the overall rock sound has a nice, punchy texture.

Almost four decades ago, British rockers who played bluesy guitar became the heroes on their instruments, people like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Joe Bonamassa carries on that tradition in the 21st Century. And given the state of the world and music, it's doubtful any blues-rock guitarist these days would achieve that kind of status. But Joe Bonamassa is in every way their equal, and his new CD is a great shot-in-the-arm for fans of the music.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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