Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joe Bonamassa: Coming Into A League of His Own?

"I told Joe after the show that he was getting to the point of being in a league of his own. I told Tal Bergman the next night that I had never heard a new member change a band so much (in a wonderful way). I told Rick Melick that his Hammond cut through the way I had always wanted it to. I told Carmine Rojas that it was fantastic to hear him off his leash, and sounding like Carmine Rojas again."

These were my words, written to Joe Bonamassa super fan, Patty Patrick, after I attended two of the axe-slinger's shows over the past weekend, and I meant every word I uttered.

As individuals, the entire band took my words with humble acceptance, but all beamed at my thoughts. They know they are on fire, yet remain focused on the work, and refuse to bask in too much of their own limelight. Bassist Carmine Rojas (David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and a long list too lengthy to print) was the most animated and outspoken, saying that the addition of drummer Tal Bergman had indeed reinvigorated the band and ratcheted the sound up significantly, which incidentally, is quite an understatement.

Drummer Tal Bergman joined the Bonamassa band shortly after the departure of longtime fan favorite, Bogie Bowles late in 2010. Bergman had previously worked with Rod Stewart, as associate-producer and drummer on the platinum and Grammy nominated album (7 million world wide) It Had To Be You...The Great American Songbook. While this is certainly a wonderful accolade, it in no way prepares one for the powerhouse tub beating that Tal brings to the Bonamassa live show.

As I told Bergman, I have never seen one individual impact the sound of a band so much with their presence. His animated antics, and superb command of the drum kit takes the show up a tremendous amount in terms of energy and excitement. From his subtle underpinnings on Sloe Gin, to his astounding assault on The Who classic, Young Man Blues, the drummer prods Bonamassa and the band to heights previously only hinted at.

Going to the show, I was somewhat flummoxed by the fact that I had interviewed Carmine Rojas almost a year ago, yet had failed to produce a word publicly. However, it became apparent almost as soon as the show began why I had failed to do so. I am a huge believer in timing, and the concept that things often happen in their time, and as they should. When I saw the band later that night after I had spoken with Carmine back in May of 2010, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed. I have been a huge Rojas fan since the Bowie days, and frankly thought he was playing beneath his capabilities. Not bad, not poorly, but also not the bass voice that had so driven Bowie's China Girl to the top of the Billboard charts (when those charts meant something). Something was amiss, but I only realized a few nights ago that the band was playing well, but not nearly up to what was possible.

Joe Bonamassa lives his life out on stages before thousands of adoring fans most evenings. Long ignored by the mainstream music press, the guitarist has slowly worked his way up to being perhaps the most powerful stage act in the world of blues and classic rock. His ascent has been both disciplined and logical. Bonamassa, and his manager/business partner, Roy Weisman, have grown their business in a very intelligent manner.  Larger stages, longer shows, better bandmates. His fans have loyally followed this growth, and have also grown hugely in number along the way. As for me, I came to the Bonamassa universe late in the game, only in the last few years, so I saw things a bit differently. Certainly as a guitarist, Joe Bonamassa has long been the king of the American blues scene, but only more recently has he catapulted his way to the top of the heap in the realm of guitar greats such as Clapton, Kossoff, Page, and Moore, the demi-gods who transcended their blues roots, gained rock credibility and became icons of the music world, transcending labels. While I agreed that Bonamassa had a great set of hands, I was not so convinced until the last year that he had achieved greatness. Now I am convinced.

Bonamassa's technical prowess has never been in question, the kid always had great chops. However, I have never seen a musician grow more in a short period of time. His playing has improved tremendously. He has found his own voice, a voice that recognizes the past, but also blazes its own path. Where before I heard many echos of players such as Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, and others, I am now hearing a voice that is more closely identifiable as that of Joe Bonamassa. Much of this seems connected to the almost amazing leap in the guitarist's singing abilities. He himself has often stated some misgivings about his vocal abilities, but I believe this will now be a thing of the past. I must think that both the experience of watching, and listening to Black Country Communion bandmate Glenn Hughes, and the pressure of having to sing alongside the force of nature that is Hughes' voice has upped the ante considerably, and that Joe has risen to the occasion. His singing is stronger, more powerful, and more adventurous than ever before. This also translates straight to his guitar playing. His style is becoming more passionate, and more exciting. His vibrato sings with a new soul that is recognizable to any astute listener. His guitar melodies, and solos now echo the voice coming out of the man, not just the instrument.

New songs such as Dust Bowl, and Slow Train display a new side of Bonamassa that he has been heading towards for several seasons - heavy, swampy rock, filled with passionate vocalizing, and some of the most distinctive guitar soloing to be heard. This is especially true on Slow Train, in which the guitar and vocal tracks sound in league with the lyrics, and the musician producing them. The guitar solos on this tune are remarkable in conveying not just a player's prowess, but the song itself. Live, these tracks are incredibly powerful, immediately grabbing an already attentive audience by the throat, and forcibly bringing them along. You can almost here the shock in the audience as it responds to the new band's sheer force. It's a joy to hear, as traditionally, Bonamassa fans have clung to the bluesier roots as the guitarist has evolved more towards a larger and more adventurous rock posture, one that suits him perfectly. It's great to hear an audience grow alongside an act.

Guitar fans should find this tour to be maybe this year's best catch, as Bonamassa brings out some of his finest pieces, including a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, the most iconic instrument in the world of the electric guitar. This particular Les Paul, one of many Les Pauls Joe plays in the show, sounds unlike any of the others, and it becomes apparent why this axe is the grail. It sings with a purity unrivaled, a bit cleaner and leaner than the higher output Les Pauls of today, evoking the memory of Peter Green, and the Eric Clapton of the Mayall days. His tones are always impeccable, and he judiciously tosses in some great wah tones, some serious Leslie cabinet emulations, and his longstanding use of the theramin to keeps things interesting, and moving along. You never get bored by the sameness of arrangements, or sounds, the curse of many a modern blues rocker.

The band is blossoming on stage, in just the short time they have been working together. It's a joy to see musicians' heads whirling as they laugh appreciatively at great riffs, or unanticipated improvisations. Joe Bonamassa is having a seriously good time with this band. Drummer Bergman has lit a fire under these fellows, and he seems to enjoy it tremendously. The interaction between Rojas, Bergman, and keyboard player Rick Melick is constant, as Bonamassa fires off volley after volley of great guitar licks, rarely repeating himself in a show that has grown by a half an hour in the last month, simply due to the band stretching out and enjoying the jams. I saw Carmine Rojas shaking his head in appreciation at certain points in which Bonamassa sang a certain line with great soul, and conviction - this from a man who shared stages with Rod Stewart, and David Bowie for over 20 years. Also a joy is watching Bonamassa and Rojas furiously trade licks, not ever wondering or worrying that Bergman would relinquish the time, or tempo. I must also give mention to the excellent tones, and notes produced by keyboardist Rick Melick. The Australian had been noticeably under mixed in tours past, and not only is he now more audible, but he has brought along a beautiful, and powerful Hammond B-3 organ this year. I must admit to missing his harmony vocals, though. He manages to hit some of the old harmonies on his synth, but I definitely prefer him singing. The volume of the keyboards, and the addition of the B-3 largely speak to the issue of tour economics, and crew size than to any other factor. Front of the House soundman/tour manager Warren Cracknell is on board again, and doing a better job than ever as the band gets considerably louder, yet more balanced and pleasing to the ear.

I may get a bit of stick from longtime Bonamassites who have been on the Joe train for a longer period, but that's okay. I am a damned hard fellow to please as a I look at everything in a very big picture. When I compare a guitarist to the likes of Page, Moore, Kossoff and others, I mean it. You can't be close, you have to be there. I don't relax standards, ever. I have waited to write about Joe Bonamassa as a solo artist for a while, sometimes to the irritation of some, but have done so for a specific reason. I was waiting for him to become someone I could compare to the few at the top of the hill. I thought that he might, but refused to speak prematurely. I stated last year when writing about Black Country Communion that he had turned a corner, and had made tremendous progress. I was right. I have never seen a musician work more diligently, and have rarely, if ever seen such startling improvement in a brief period. Joe Bonamassa has become a maestro in his own right, and I see no end in sight. If you have hesitated in the past to give the guy a shot, now it is time to pay attention. Buy the new record, see this tour, and expect to be blown away.

Greatness is a term bandied about much too readily, and has over time become besmirched, and lost some gravitas. Joe Bonamassa has achieved greatness. He has a band that is equal to his talents, and that works as hard as he does to please, and thrill their audiences. The package is complete and has been delivered. As I stated, Joe is now approaching a league of his own. What I meant by that, Joe, is that you have climbed the mountain, and have planted your flag. There are very few guys left out there who can play great guitar, write songs, sing them passionately and with conviction, and can fill seats in the manner in which you are doing. Congratulations are in order. Your tremendous passion, and work ethic is paying off handsomely.

Thanks to all in the Bonamassa camp for their hospitality, and their time. I got to speak with the whole band, and manager Roy Weisman over the weekend, and was able to properly determine that what I had thought was true, was, in fact - that this band is as thrilled as their audience about this tour.

Photos courtesy of Libby Sokolowski. All rights reserved. Thanks to Libby for the connections, logistics, and so much more.