Joe Bonamassa's Black Rock CD Review - by J. Blake

Posted on 4/06/2010 by J. Blake

(New York, NY)

For the past decade, 32 year-old, Joe Bonamassa has been a very busy man; releasing eleven CDs in just ten years. His latest release, BLACK ROCK, finds the young bluesman once again working with producer Kevin Shirley and dishing out covers by artists that include Blind Boy Fuller, Otis Rush, Jeff Beck, John Hiatt, Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen.

Throughout his career Bonamassa has acquired a strong fan-base and the respect of many of the blues’ most beloved living legends; B.B. King’s participation on this album’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” is undeniable proof of this. He is unquestionably a very skilled guitarist and he continues to prove that he’s got a knack for picking interesting covers, but as I listen to this latest studio effort, I can’t help but feel that Bonamassa is perhaps….slightly overrated.

Yes, he is technically a very talented player, but the blues is not a genre of music that relies purely on technical ability. His singing voice, at times, comes off as an uncanny blend of John Mayall and Robben Ford and despite the fact that I am a fan of both of those artists (as well as Bonamassa), two blues singers with that vocal sound may already be two too many. It is a quality that I affectionately call “the ‘white’ bluesman’s burden”.

As Bonamassa tackles material with the electric blues-rock vibe that he has become best known for, it feels a little too 'ordinary' for my taste. It saddens me that this is what the blues has ultimately become. Tracks like Bobby Parker’s “Steal Your Heart Away”, Jeff Beck’s “Spanish Boots”, Otis Rush’s “Three Times a Fool”, the B.B. King duet “Night Life”, James Clark’s “Look Over Yonders Wall” and the original compositions “When the Fire Hits the Sea” and “Wandering Earth” are 'fine' recordings, but sound like they could have been recorded by almost anybody. His style on these tracks is one that seemed fresh and full of potential in his early career, but now a decade later, more often than not, seems recycled and a little tired.

Stylistically, BLACK ROCK’s standard blues-rock fare does not differ greatly from most of the CDs I receive for possible review. What separates the blues (and blues-rock) greats from the average player is ‘delivery’ and unfortunately, to my ear, Bonamassa’s seems a little forced and insincere. There is a certain authenticity that comes across in great performances. It has been proven that one does not need to be a black man growing up in the 20s, 30s or 40s to be able to sing the blues, but to make it seem authentic there does need to be a certain amount of pain and heartbreak; or at least some empathy and an understanding of it. The same can also be said for blues derived rock or any other conventional soul-based music for that matter. Technically Bonamassa delivers a lyric proficiently, but too often it doesn’t seem like he totally understands what it means.

Thankfully BLACK ROCK is not entirely a work of modern blues/rock mediocrity. Bonamassa’s cover of John Hiatt’s “I Know a Place”, may start out sounding like more of the same, but by its end, manages to exceed expectation with a 'ballzy' instrumental break that tastefully highlights his guitar playing ability. His rendition of Blind Boy Fuller’s “Baby You Gotta Change Your Mind” bounces with a lightheartedness that unfortunately eludes the rest of the material and the album’s remaining four tracks (including a well executed cover of Leonard Cohen's "Bird On a Wire") seem to incorporate Celtic and Mediterranean influences; that may not cater to my tastes per se, but at least show an ambition for artistic growth.

I have no doubt that most of Bonamassa’s fans will be thoroughly satisfied with this latest studio effort. It is a bit of a return to some of his early electric blues-rock roots, but does contain tracks that share some of the same sensibilities as his 2009 critical hit, THE BALLAD OF JOHN HENRY

Unfortunately BLACK ROCK does not display the same amount of growth as his previous studio effort and for that reason it is not really my cup of tea…but this is just one man’s opinion.

*If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: Mike Zito’s Pearl River

Thanks and keep reading American Blues News!!!

Copyright © 2010 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

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