The blues, like jazz, saw its star fade dramatically after the middle of the 1970s, particularly in its native America. Pop music had become increasingly less blues-based, and many prominent blues practitioners tried to change with the times, often with frankly depressing results. Outside of Texas, the decade of the 1980s was a difficult one both for blues musicians and their fans. While the 1990s saw a brief shot in the arm with Eric Clapton’s massively successful all-blues album From the Cradle and the appearance of a few highly-touted child prodigies (Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Shannon Curfman), this resurgence was offset by the fact that so many stalwarts of the old guard were dying off at an alarming rate. It appeared as if the blues were being relegated to niche-industry status, kept alive for historical reasons by a (mostly white) cadre of dedicated listeners and performers.
It was against this background that Joe Bonamassa emerged, playing briefly with the group Bloodline, who saw minor success in 1994 with a release on Epic. He bounced around for a few years before shooting to the top of the US blues charts with his second solo album, 2002’s So, It’s Like That. It was the first of four albums to do so; his latest, The Ballad of John Henry, is likely to top it a fifth time, and may even make an appearance on the UK album charts (as his last two efforts did). A formidable guitarist and a gritty, evocative vocalist, Bonamassa takes a brawny, full-cycle approach to blues rock that has made him one of the style’s chief ambassadors in the new millennium, though he’s still not very well-known outside of it. As a solo artist, he’s never had a hit single at radio, and has made his success without the weight of a big-name record label behind him. Is he, then, just catering to a subset of traditionalists who want more of the same old thing?
There are a lot of paint-by-numbers guitarists out there whose efforts end up being a guessing game of emulation — instead of songs, they perform multiple-choice questions, where the radio buttons are normally A.) Hendrix, B.) Santana, C.) Clapton, and D.) Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bonamassa pays homage, to be sure, but his output has never felt like a mere tribute, and his reach extends far beyond the usual pantheon of tired titans. On his covers-heavy 2003 set, Blues Deluxe, Bonamassa dug into the catalogues of, among others, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Albert Collins, and Freddie King, splitting the difference between straight blues and hard rock as ably as any modern interpreter. His originals can sometimes be a bit lackluster, however, as with the occasionally clunky songwriting on the otherwise stellar So, It’s Like That. By 2007’s Sloe Gin, his songwriting had improved somewhat, though the record only had a handful of originals (and one of them was an instrumental).
The Ballad of John Henry’s seven new works show Bonamassa continuing to progress as a songwriter, though the pyrotechnics are still the most impressive part of the show. The title track is a swamp-stomping retelling of the story of the American folk hero, featuring a synthy keyboard solo with slight Eastern overtones and steel chains used as a rhythm instrument. This is risky experimentation, likely to attract the ire of blues purists, but it works, and emphatically so, adding a touch of spookiness to the heavy background. The hard-edged “Last Kiss” is the best track on the album, killing with Hammond organ and tambourine over a smoking two-step shuffle.
Bonamassa’s always been able to set a roadhouse on fire (see “Lie Number One” from So, It’s Like That or “Burning Hell” from Blues Deluxe), and this is no exception, but “Last Kiss” takes another unexpected twist. Instead of building to a towering crescendo and ending with a bang, it slowly ratchets down with an extended solo and hummed vocals, gliding gently to its conclusion over the course of seven minutes. “Happier Times” is a sturdy, Paul Rodgers-style lamentation that’s breathtaking in its tender gloominess, and ranks as possibly Bonamassa’s best original ballad. The too-slow “The Great Flood” is the least interesting of the originals, but “Story of a Quarryman” and the instrumental “From the Valley” stand alongside the three others mentioned above as proof of Bonamassa’s better compositional chops.
The album also sports a number of fine covers, aside from the forgettable version of the Ike & Tina-associated “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”. Bonamassa turns Sam Brown’s ‘80s take on ‘60s soul, “Stop!”, into a Chicago blues moaner, adding horns to the mix for the first time in his career. He takes two solos, waxing B.B. King on the first before breaking out more along his own lines for the second. Barrelhouse piano opens and closes a rollicking rendition of Tom Waits’s “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, and a high-octane reading of Tony Joe White’s “As the Crow Flies” ends the disc with panache. The choices are fairly sprawling, and his varied settings keep the disc lively and interesting, certainly more so than the recent efforts of many of his peers.
Joe Bonamassa has been making reliably excellent music for nearly a decade now as a solo artist, and on his most recent record he shows no signs of slowing down. The Ballad of John Henry is an argument for the continuing relevance and vitality of the blues, both in style and spirit. Bonamassa demonstrates that, far from being exhausted of ideas, the blues are still a vibrant source of inspiration, and that much of today’s rock music could do with an injection of it for the sake of some soul and heft. With Derek Trucks’s Already Free having been released in January and The Ballad of John Henry out in February, 2009 is already shaping up to be a very, very good year for blues rock.