Joe Bonamassa Morphs Into Large Black Man! Cool!


February 25, 2009 by billie789

You’ve heard of the One Minute Manager? Well, this is the One Minute Album Review. The idea is write down what comes immediately to mind, not sit around and wax poetic and philosophically about things simple enough to describe in a minute.

As I found out just a few days ago, our good, good friend, Joe Bonamassa, has a new album out titled,” The Ballad of John Henry.”


This from Wiki:

John Henry is an American folk hero, famous for having raced against a steam powered hammer and won, only to die in victory. He has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, and novels.

Like other “Big Men” such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, John Henry also served as a mythical representation of a group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular version of the story, Henry is born into the world big and strong weighing 33 pounds. He grows to become the greatest “steel-driver” in the mid-century push to erect the railroads across the mountains to the West. When the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew, to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: himself alone versus the steam hammer. John Henry beats the machine, but exhausted, collapses and dies.”

This story is about a large, powerful railroad laborer who happened to be African-American. The other famous John Henry is a Kentucky race horse, unless you’re thinking about the owner of the Boston Red Sox.

O.k., so Joe Bonamassa either fancies himself as a large, powerful black man with a rail sledge or he’s just awestruck and wanted to honor the legend. Or, life on The Road has emptied him out and he’s ready to collapse and die of exhaustion.

Let’s not think about this too much. Ruins the One Minute format. The album cover is cool. It tells a bit of a story in itself. Vintage, blues, the South, even the Old West.

Here’s my take:

Cut #1-The Ballad of John Henry

Ah, you can hear John Henry’s sledgehammer…bang, bang, bang,…wait a minute, that’s a throbbing in my temples as this thing plods along like a dinosaur with dumptrucks for shoes. A little too predictable for my tastes, really. Title tracks are giving me fits lately.  They seem to be the weakest cut on a couple of albums I just purchased.


Classic Bonamassa 12-bar blues and it’s just plain-old, good stuff. Could be on any of his albums. Just a good piece of this musician showcasing what he does best. Kind of a signature-sounding piece.

#3-Last Kiss

Great, gritty, uptempo-toe-tapper. A  little swamp, a little mud and you’re there. I can almost see a group of white folks in short-sleeved shirts standing on the old wooden dock, squinting into the sun (waiting for the shuttle to the riverboat casino!).

#4-Jockey Full of Bourbon

Cowboy drinking song. I’m just relieved it didn’t break out into “99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall.”

#5-Story of a Quarryman

You know, Bonamassa’s extreme work ethic is coming through on these titles. And his singular, strong and extreme riffs are chunking along on this tune. Again, great, gutsy guitar riff, but I’m left waiting at the bus stop for a ride.

#6- Lonesome Road Blues

Probably my favorite cut. Great tempo, you can’t ignore it; it picks you up at the bus stop and careens near the edge of the mountain roads, dust and dirt flying. And it’s fun!

#7-Happier Times

A real departure from blues-rock standard fare. Much more toned down, homogenized, fluid and ready-for-prime time. Could be the soundtrack to a new drama about dysfunctional plastic surgeons or lawyers.

#8-Feelin’ Good

Ah, yes…The Beatles meet .38 Special.

#9-Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter

Way too commercial sounding for me. Horns…waddya gonna do? I know horns have a place, like marching bands, Motown and jazz. This cut doesn’t stop me from enjoying the CD, but this is a throw away. I want grit or I want silk. I don’t want a Visa card commercial. 

#10-The Great Flood

A bit of a funeral. Sounds like pretty standard blues stuff and if you’re gonna listen to really good, standard blues stuff, this should be on your list.

Joe’s so good at this kinda slice o’ blues pie.

#11-From the Valley

I confess that I didn’t listen to the entire cut. What I heard was very entertaining acoustic “touch” playing. Reflective, somber, good stuff.

#12-As The Crow Flies

Again (too bad I’m forced to sprinkle  my review vocabulary to comments like “again” with this particular project) it’s good, solid, vintage blues riffing. Not too intellectual, but neither are the blues, so it works adequately.

That’s it. Done. And I still have my self-respect. I’m just curious. How could this thing have been issued the past few days and already it’s marked down 33% on Amazon?

Oh, well. Hammer away, John Henry!

Now, I’m waiting for Jeff Beck’s new piece coming out soon that he described recently as “swampy, violent, adult metal.”

Jesus! That’s gonna be a killer!

21 thoughts on “Joe Bonamassa Morphs Into Large Black Man! Cool!

  1. Stu says:

    My copy has yet to arrive. I’m looking forward to giving it a spin, even more so after reading this positive review from my favorite cynic!

  2. billie789 says:

    Don’t get carried away. I’m trying to be nice, in a Clint Eastwood sorta way ; )

  3. Randy Spiker says:

    Wow Bill, you liked it eh? After reading that blog you posted a few months ago I thought you were done with JB. Now I’m gonna have to look into getting this release and it’s all your fault!

  4. billie789 says:

    Like I said, I’m trying to be nice (g-r-r-r-rowl!). I still have my opinions and I’m very reserved about this piece.

    I’m still willing to kick anyone in the ass (nicely!) for saying “This is his best work!” about each album that rolls along. He’s not getting all that much more interesting each time. It’s like some valuable collectible that he polishes and shines a little more each time. Same piece, more polish, more elbow grease.

  5. Stu says:

    I got impatient and downloaded it off iTunes last night. Still assimilating. There’s a 13th track, “Chains and Things” that’s evidently only on the iTunes version. I’ll post my album review in the next week or so.

  6. Da Goddess says:

    Oooh, now I want to hear that 13th tune!

    I don’t think this is his greatest album ever, but I do like it. I’ve been listening to it for months now and I’m not burned out, not like I was five minutes into the Live album. (That was a throwaway in my book)

  7. Jane says:

    Yeah Billie needs to hear that Chains and Things , sorta ironic.. but do i remember him saying he doesn’t see people in color? or maybe that was just colbert, i forget.
    anyway there is a little bit of video on Joe’s site where he explains the John Henry thing and how it relates to the struggles of the blue collar worker – or something like that – hear his words for the explanation but i totally related to it.
    its a great cd IMO, not the best IMO but not not the best either if that makes sense. IMO

  8. Jane says:

    By the way i thought the live cd set was awesome, if anyone ever has one they will throw away please consider donating it to a library opr something. there’s plaenty of people who would have enjoyed it

  9. Jane says:

    I truly would be interested to hear details on how you came up with the description of the beatles meet 38 special. that is hard to wrap my head around esp. about happier times. oh wait i guess you wrote that in one second if the whole thing is a one minute review. nevermind!

  10. bill says:

    Would you say that it was an “Unnecessary Best of…?” snark, snark.

    I honestly hadn’t visited the JB corporate web site and forum for over a year, but cruised through lightly yesterday and got a totally confusing read from his fan base about this newest release.

    But, then again, it’s the same old response: It’s too slick, it’s his best yet, it’s too middle-of-the-road, it’s a variety showcase, it lacks guitar pyro, the artist has matured, it’s boring (Wow! The Republican Guard haven’t zapped that guy yet!?!?); it’s about his voice and songwriting.

    As I mentioned to Stu, I actually felt a twinge of sympathy for old Joe. His inner circle is comprised of people who will say pigs can fly when they know damn well that they can’t, but on the outer edges, especially in Europe, many are not very enthusiastic. Let down, even.

    But something I read on his corporate forum about this new piece caught my eye and I thought it noteworthy. Someone said that they were originally attracted to this guy because he was fronting a powerful trio, gutsy, raw, in-your-face energy and soul. And now, not so much. Too many musicians filling in the holes and valleys that were once breathtaking and exciting, way overproduced and sanitized at the hands of Kevin Shirley, etc.

    The Power Trio thing is the reason we listened in the first place. Had my first encounter with Joe Bonamassa been a project like this one, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would have said,Thanks, no thanks.”

    Fuck! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That goes for you, Kevin Shirley.

    If you want your blues-rock sox bleached, then Knocked Clean Off Your Body, buy Gary Moore’s new CD, “Bad For You, Baby!” Turn up your Ipod or car system and listen to Track #2 repeatedly, until your brain swells and your eyes bug out. You want to talk “jaw-dropping” and “tone-monster?”The guitar break on Trk #2 made me pee my pants the first time I heard it. I’ve finally gotten to where I can listen to it and control myself.

    Embarassing…maybe it’s age.

  11. Stu says:

    Funny you should mention Gary Moore’s new CD. That record flat rocks my world! I couldn’t help but think of JB when I first heard it. Not that it reminded me of Joe, but rather how Joe’s moved away from being a really hard rockin, guitar-driven, stripped down and in-your-face electric blues and blues rock guy to more of an adult contemporary artist with blues influences.

    That being said, I do like the, “New Joe.” It’s like this – if the new Joe just appeared on the scene, and I had no basis for comparison, I’d buy his music and go to his shows. I’d be a fan, and his CDs would be on fairly regular rotation . I’ve still got to put together a review of John Henry, but it will be favorable.

    But if for some strange reason I was forced to either give up listening to the ANDY LIVE era Joe, or the You and Me/Sloe Gin/John Henry Joe, I’d have to keep the former over the later. That’s not an indictment of his newer material, it’s just a statement of personal preference from this old rocker.

  12. Da Goddess says:

    Interesting stuff. I do think the transition away from power trio has created a different sound that doesn’t quite tug at me the way the power trio tunes did. It was a visceral thing. On the albums, I didn’t mind extra players here and there because they added new texture to certain songs, but that’s become the rule rather than the exception. It was also really fun to see how Joe interpreted songs on stage without the studio players. It was refreshing and exciting to see how he filled those holes.

    Maybe Joe’s figured that he’s playing smarter rather than harder these days. I can’t say I blame him. I mean, who doesn’t strive for that as they get older? Not that I’m saying this is the reason. Whatever the reason, the simple fact is, Joe’s grown and changed things up a bit. Most of it’s still good rockin’ blues and I like it. It’s just different from where he started.

    Oh, and Jane, while Live is not my favorite and I feel it’s devoid of the heart and the heat that you find in Joe’s live shows, the CD remains in my collection.

  13. rsr348 says:

    Wow, so much to ponder here. I’m curiuous about this CD and think I will get it for my forthcoming b-day. Wasn’t impressed with Sloe Gin, and didn’t buy Live from Nowhere. Have enough live tracks that other people gave me and can’t afford every new CD that comes along.

    I agree with much of what each of you has said. I don’t know. My husband and I didn’t enjoy the last live performance we saw three yrs ago, because it appeared to be mainly Joe showing off loud guitar shredding skills, which we appreciate to some degree, but would have preferred more singing. I don’t know if that has changed over the past few years. I would like to give another live show a try, but might have to go without the hubster.

  14. rsr348 says:

    Good Monday morning! The sun is shining again here in the northwoods with a balmy 0 degrees. I don’t have to work til noon, and this thread got me in the mood for a cup o’ Joe this morning. Sifting through a pile of unorganized CDs, I came across Had to Cry Today, and forgot how much I like that one. It’s the one I took to get signed after the one show that I was able to stay late enough and wait in line. Has a good variety and there’s not a track on there that doesn’t grab me in some way. Faux Mantini is a favorite, and I was fortunate to catch an awesome and coveted live performance of it in Milwaukee several years ago.

    Thanks for letting me trail off in a nostalgic flashback. Guess I really need to go see him again.

  15. Randy Spiker says:

    Quote from Da Goddess;
    “Maybe Joe’s figured that he’s playing smarter rather than harder these days.”

    Seems that’s usually an excuse or prelude to “selling out”. I haven’t given the new “ride” a spin yet but like many have expressed, I miss the early days when he really seemed to enjoy what he was doing. I think back to the Eric & Kenny days and have fond memories. I can understand why he turned loose of those two……. “change”. Change for the sake of change is not always a guaranteed winner.

    OTOH…… I will be picking up GMs new release for sure. That guy still has the energy and inspiration that lately has been missing to a small degree from JB…… IMHO.

    Bill…… may I suggest the next time you strap on a pair of Depends first. You can pee all night long and no one but you will notice. ;-)

  16. bill says:

    You know, that’s the difference, too, Randy. Here’s guy who’s been hittin’ it hard since he was 16 years old. He’s been in several top-shelf bands with different appeal and sounds and he comes to roost at the door of Blues Rock for the past 10 or so years.

    I’m talkin’ about Gary Moore. Read his bio and press from way back…”child prodigy, heavily influenced by big names like Peter Green, road warrior, etc.”

    You can still, to this day, pick up one of his latest blues-rock CD’s and get treated to what you need, not what he wants. He “gets” it. He does it.

    Unless I’m totally off my aging Rocker, I would venture a guess that Bonamassa is reaching a different place after all the road years, gigs all over the map, mixed reaction to his band changes and tunes. He’s just a different guy, now.

    I wish Bonamassa all the best, really I do. He’s earned it and he’s earned it the hard way. The trail of doting fans will follow him right into soft-rock Hell (remember when Joe’s music was 80% hard kick and 10% soft or acoustic “reflective” stuff?)

    And I honestly feel bad for his romantic problems. I believe I saw a posting when I cruised his site last week that his girlfriend had dumped him. If I heard that about other rockers, I wouldn’t give a shit, but Joe is so different from his peer musicians that it kinda bothered me. His girlfriend dumps him, he veers off into slickly-produced A.O.R. at times and his most ardent fans admit that TBOJH took them a while to “get used to.” It shouldn’t take “getting used to” if it’s truly his best work yet.

    “His best work yet” is another 5-star rip-off reach-around.

  17. Da Goddess says:

    Well, Bill, the girlfriend dumping was a while back. Right after the LIVE CD came out and had his thank you to her. If I recall, they were a rather new couple. Anyhow, I never like to think of anyone hurting because of romance gone wrong. I know how it feels. But I think break up has little to do with most of the tunes (save one) on this disc.

    I dunno. If I were given a choice of ONE Joe CD to take with me on a long trip, I’m pretty sure I’d take Blues Deluxe or Had To Cry. (I’d probably sneak the second one anyway)

    This CD isn’t bad. It’s just not as pure, not as raw, not as “honest” as some of his older stuff, though some will disagree.

    Oh well, enough musing about JB. I got my own shit to deal with these days. lol

  18. Stu says:

    Rather than generate a whole new review, here’s a copy/paste of what I posted on the JB forum:

    * * * * * * * * * *

    I really like the new album. It seems a natural next step in the progression that started with You and Me, then to Sloe Gin, and now to John Henry. While I don’t necessarily prefer or favor it over his earlier work, I like it just as well for different reasons.

    It’s different music and needs to be evaluated on it’s own merit. One cannot fairly review John Henry based on comparisons to previous releases. It needs to be reviewed (in my opinion) as if it was a new record by someone I had never heard before, although I know that’s easier said than done.

    My ONLY issue with John Henry is production – but I should clarify that statement. The word “Production” paints with a broad brush. My observations are not meant to be a criticism of Kevin Shirley.

    There is a lot more to producing a record than simply mixing and engineering a recording to suit my personal tastes and preferences. Besides, I have every confidence that this record was produced with the input, preferences and approval of Joe…so it’s probably would not be fair to criticise Kevin Shiley anyway.

    I think the songs on John Henry (which are very good) could have literally JUMPED off the record and out the speakers. They are ripe for depth, dynamics, definition and clarity. For me though, that aspect is somewhat lacking.

    As I mentioned, it could be (and probably is) simply a matter of personal taste preference. But I guess that’s what any review is? To me the sound comes across compressed. The snare drum lacks crispness and snap. The cymbals sound distant and slightly muffled. The bass lacks definition and clarity. The overall mix is such that often times everything is in such perfect balance and blended together that, while it makes for a pleasant and easy listening experience, it misses out on several opportunities to really generate that “Wow” factor and excitement. Those moments when the guy at the next desk spins his head around and goes “WHO IS THAT!!!???” Yet the material is such that these dynamics could have been created.

    I wasn’t sure if what I thought I was (or wasn’t) hearing was accurate, so I flipped back and forth between different artists and recordings and John Henry on my iPod. It confirmed by thoughts and observations.

    It’s like looking at a wonderful view through a dirty window. The view may still be great, but the same view through a clean window has more clarity, contract, and vividness. The subtle differences in the shades of green no longer blend together.

    I know it’s a nit-picking thing. It won’t prevent me from listening to John Henry frequently. But that’s my 2 cents.

  19. bill says:

    Yup, my thoughts on over-producing a rocker, as well. Took the edge clean off in some places.

    I really believe that Bonamassa has moved on. It’s like my kids: They were so incredibly adorable when they were five or six years old that my heart aches.

    Now that they’re teenagers, I still love them, but the “adorable” factor is long gone. And I miss them terribly.

  20. Stu says:

    It’s funny in a way. Not funny “Ha-Ha” but funny as in interesting how my mind works. I think about a lot of different artists, and how they have done the same thing. I LOVED Zep I and Zep II, was OK with 3 and 4, and didn’t care as much for Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffitti (at least at the time). Very similar dynamic here. As I look back now, I really like all of Led Zep’s records…but at the time I was really disappointed at the loss of the edgy blues-rock of Zep I and II. I bet there were early, die-hard Zep fans who bemoaned these changes at the time.

    There are countless examples of this same thing happening with other artists. I think it’s those fans who are really HUGE supporters of an artist early on that are the ones who are the most disappointed when their music changes. People who discovered Zep by purchasing Houses of the Holy were probably much less disappointed when Physical Graffitti came out.

  21. rsr348 says:

    Great analogy with Zeppelin. I think I’ve heard those sentiments from others in the past. I love all Led, and it’s hard for me to pick a fav, as it is with JB. I was turned on to them in the late 70s, when my older brother gave me Led Zep 1, and said that was the one he thought I would like the best. They’re each good for different moods, I guess, which is also the same as Joe albums for me. I think what turned me on to Joe was the way we caught him performing the first time, by accident, and said, Man this dude is cool! I don’t know if hearing any album would have done that.

    What a sweet comment from bill, about kids growing up. It kills me every day to watch mine grow independent, as much as I love it that they are. Working with toddlers and preschoolers reminds me even more that mine will never be little again, and I wish I had cherished that time a bit more.

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February 2009

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