Review: Joe Bonamassa’s The Ballad of John Henry

July 27, 2009 | By | Reply More

bonamass_joe_bojh_coverBefore getting into this track-by-track review, I’d like to make three things clear just so you know where I’m coming from.

1.  I’m a new-ish Joe Bonamssa fan, so I don’t have in-depth familiarity with his prior six CDs.

2.  I’m a classic rock guy, not really a blues guy – although Joe is sort of a hybrid stylist.

3.  I’m sure Joe could give a rip what I think, especially since The Ballad of John Henry debuted on the Billboard blues chart at No. 1.

I hope that makes my perspective clearer, and don’t read that to mean that I have a bunch of negative comments to make – I don’t! So following are my overall comments, followed by my track-by-track review.

Overall Impression

It’s a good CD, and I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth. The title track alone may be worth the price – seriously.

It still feels to me – after multiple listenings – that Joe and Kevin Shirley, the producer, sometimes emphasized the songs and the vocals more than the guitar playing and the live, “jammy” feel that I personally like about Joe. That’s one of the perils of going into a studio so I’m not surprised, but still – live, Joe is a tour de force.

But blues purist-fans of Joe might have the opposite opinion.

And by “the guitar playing,” I mean that I wish there was more extended playing (of course!), where the guitar is in the mix at times, and I’d like to hear more of the sheer power (and restraint) Joe has with his rig and technique.

Overall, of course, Joe has great tones on this record. At this point, I don’t think he can help it!

Track by Track

Note: Songs with an asterisk are written by Joe.

1. The Ballad of John Henry*
Just a great tune, heavier than I expected, Music Man baritone guitar is the main instrument. Some pre-chorus ’70s strings (in a good way) in there. Highlights: very beginning with guitar feeding back; strings; slide guitar that starts at 3:14; cool ending.

Just an awesome tune that I really can’t listen to enough. But also, for me as a classic rock guy, it got my hopes up that the rest of the CD would be in this vein, but it’s not. I’m sure long-time Joe fans would not have made the same stylistic assumption.

This tune comes in at 6:26 – 6:26! I mean, not only does that take balls, but it’s a great 6:26.

2. Stop!
An old-school slow blues with horns. Great tone, great lead and vocals, GREAT ending and outro. Nice change from the first track, great tone and playing. My second-favorite tune on the CD.

3. Last Kiss*
Fat, but not bassy tone, some organ, faster blues, another cool ending. In the liner notes, Joe said he and the band recorded this one “live and off the cuff.” It definitley feels like it, except for the vocals – which as a contrast is kind of cool.

4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
Starts with whiskey-house piano, then big blues guitar. A slow tune, kind of a cool feel, but I don’t get much “Joe” out of it.

5. Story of a Quarryman*
Cool tune, also sort of plodding beat, but a cool riff and good singing, cool progression under the solo. Gotta love the big guitars in the mix on this one.

6. Lonesome Road Blues*
Fast blues tune, lots of cool fills (wish they were higher in the mix). Apologies to Rick Melick, but I wish there were no keyboards on this one – because I am a raw guitars/classic rock guy!

7. Happier Times*
A ballad – pedal-tone drone and verse chord progression reminds me of a Fleetwood Mac tune!  Interesting. Joe said the lead in this tune is closest to the ideal tone he envisions in his head.

8. Feelin’ Good
Go on with the singing, Joe! An old-school, “zoot suit” tune. I really dig the slide solo on this one. Not your typical slide, which is great.

9. Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter
Cool modern-sounding blues tune. Horns, sax, high-energy. Supposedly shades of Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck in the use of 12th-, 7th- and 5th-fret harmonics, according to a Guitar Player interview earlier this year, but it sounds more like JB than EVH. According to the liner notes, Joe actually used a Beck-like setup of: Les Paul, Coloursound Overdriver and Marshall Super Lead – but in the GP interview he ays it was a Park 75 (50-watt Marshall) into an old basket-weave cab. He also says he used a wah pedal here.

10. The Great Flood*
Super slow blues tune. Joe trades solos with a sax player which is interesting, but just not my cup o’ tea.

11. From the Valley*
Acoustic slide tune – sort of a prelude to the acoustic intro of the next tune.

12. As the Crow Flies
Rockin’ blues tune. Phunky phaser solo. He said he used a ’58 Fender Vibrolux, Coloursound Tremolo pedal and a chorus for this tune.

Category: Colorsound, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Les Paul, mp3/CD/DVD

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