The Ballad Of John Henry

Joe Bonamassa

J&R, 2009

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Joe Bonamassa had released some solid albums in the first part of the new century, slowly increasing his fanbase and name with each one, but none of them really approached consistent greatness until 2009’s The Ballad Of John Henry. And although there isn’t that much difference between this and his previous efforts sonically, the disc as a whole consolidates all the strengths the blues guitar whiz has to offer with a dash of seriousness that lends a necessary gravity to the music.

For me, anyway, this is where Phase 2 of Joe Bonamassa’s career really begins. You & Me and Sloe Gin had their moments, sure, but nothing compares to “The Ballad Of John Henry,” a hard, heavy blues-rock American folktale with an epic progressive-rock breakdown in the center and neat sound effects (chains that rattle during the verses). This is the point where Bonamassa broke away from being Kenny Wayne Shepherd pt. 2, or Stevie Ray Vaughan for the 2000s, and becomes an artist, storyteller, and blues guitarist in his own right. To be fair, Bonamassa had already attempted the song while a member of Black Country Communion, but my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 this is the definitive treatment.

As a songwriter, Bonamassa shows growth in both composition and quantity, writing seven of the 12 tracks here and picking well-chosen covers as per usual, then playing them straight with signature heaviness. The slow blues of “Stop!” reaches a climax with a tremendous guitar solo and heartfelt, soulful vocals, with an unobtrusive bed of horns laying a foundation along with a rock-solid rhythm section. “Last Kiss,” another original, chugs forward via Anton Fig’s drums (a surefire recipe for success on this guy’s records), some fat bottom-end bass guitar and Bonamassa’s growled vocals; the meaty guitar is just the icing on top. These three songs take up 21 minutes but it feels like half that, so intoxicating it is, the way Bonamassa’s best work can be.   

Elsewhere, “Story Of A Quarryman” is the Zeppelin-fried photo negative of “John Henry,” while the rave-up boogie “Lonesome Road Blues” is downright fun, and the flinty acoustic-guitar-led “Happier Times” lends a husky drama to a relationship gone sour. The cover of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” is a time-waster, but I’ve never liked Tom Waits the way other critics do, so take it as you will. Joe at least makes him palatable. Same goes for the old musical chestnut “Feelin’ Good,” which Bonamassa treats musically as a sort of descent into madness, rendering the sentiment of the vocals questionable at best, a fascinating dichotomy.

The slow crawl of “The Great Flood” tends to drag – “Stop!” already covered this ground earlier – but the reading of Tina Turner’s “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter” is good fun and a necessary break from the seriousness that pervades the disc. The sparse “From The Valley” is an acoustic guitar piece in which Bonamassa reins in the temptation to show off, showing his impressive chops without resorting to theatrics; it leads in to “As The Crow Flies,” which uses acoustic/electric dynamics, a stomping beat, and a Memphis swagger to close out a fine album.

This disc and the successive Royal Albert Hall concert are the best places for Bonamassa newcomers to begin and remains a highwater mark of his career and the modern blues-rock movement.

Rating: B+

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