Monday, March 22, 2010

Joe Bonamassa adds postcard from Greece to Zep-inspired catalog

If Led Zeppelin fans are at all aware of Mississippi Fred McDowell, it is probably because of his lyrics to "Shake 'em On Down" and "Drop Down Mama" having been appropriated for the Physical Graffiti track "Custard Pie." (Robert Plant had also sung "Shake 'em On Down" on the closing number of Led Zeppelin III, "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.")

With songs like "Custard Pie" -- as well as "Whole Lotta Love," "When the Levee Breaks," "In My Time of Dying" and "Nobody's Fault but Mine" -- Led Zeppelin seemingly made an art form of copying lyrics and creating unique musical arrangements with a heavy rock edge. One of the better examples of an artist following in their footsteps comes from guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa on his steady 2004 album, Had to Cry Today.

He does it twice on that disc, once with another set of lyrics from McDowell, titled "The River," which is played in a heavy, electric accompaniment with a straightforward rock rhythm and howling harmonica. If it sounds like I could be describing the flood-themed "When the Levee Breaks," that's because you're right. Bonamassa knowingly mimics Led Zeppelin on that track. He thoughtfully explained in the CD liner notes at the time:
"I wanted to write a mystery blues folklore song like the blues greats did in the 20's and 30's. What I wanted to do is take a song that could easily be played on the National Triolian alone but make it heavy. With that said, I wanted to keep all the soulful elements and the authentic feel intact. Masterful harmonica by the legendary Jon Paris adds a unique flavor to the song. This one is also best when played loud."
Perhaps even stronger on that album is the other Zeppelin-inspired piece, which takes the lyric of "Reconsider Baby" by Lowell Fulson. Bonamassa and his studio band recreated the sound of the Led Zeppelin III blues "Since I've Been Loving You." He writes in the liner notes that he's trying to take us right back to the Royal Albert Hall in London, circa 1968. (Give him a break; he's off by only a year or two.) Bonamassa's style of playing on these two tracks -- both contained on the album Had to Cry Today (the title track being his cover of the Blind Faith song) -- is very reminiscent of Jimmy Page's.

There's no doubt from listening to either of those two tracks that Bonamassa is a Led Zeppelin fan and a student of Page. His follow-up album, 2006's You & Me, had Jason Bonham on drums and contained a cover of Led Zeppelin's blues track "Tea for One." Also, this was the first album of Bonamassa's to feature the production work of Kevin Shirley, who by then had become the sound man of choice for Jimmy Page on any of his musical projects, including Led Zeppelin live releases. Despite the collective studio unit's best intentions, the guitar playing on "Tea for One" is rather busy compared to the original, and the excessive string arrangement provides too much connectivity in a song that was originally meant to sound staccato.

However, Bonamassa's next live album, the 2008 double-disc set From Nowhere in Particular, contained two tracks that more than atone for any past transgressions. They're the only two that exceed the 10-minute mark.

The first is a medley beginning with Bonamassa's own instrumental, "India," which could easily be mistaken for the Page instrumental "White Summer," and transforming into the vocal track "Mountain Time" -- the same way Page used to play "White Summer," on electric guitar, to introduce the full band with "Kashmir."

The other is the longest track on either half of the live album. Clocking in at 17:53, it is another medley opening with an instrumental, this time "Django." It is used here as a three-minute introduction for a full-band rendition of the ZZ Top tune "Just Got Paid." As a lengthy guitar solo proceeds, you can eventually a rare guitar sound that has become quite familiar to Led Zeppelin fans: a bow being used on the fretboard. Slowly but surely, Bonamassa is building up to something; what that is becomes clear by the 15-minute mark as he and his band have launched into the instrumental sections of "Dazed and Confused." It's there as a bonus, the title not listed on the album jacket, which may be why some fans have missed it. This is not to be missed!

Last year, Bonamassa released another album, this one titled The Ballad of John Henry. The title character is described as a workingman hero, using a name that's commonly been invoked in fictional literary works. There was no apparent intent to name the album after the John Henry Bonham who drummed for Led Zeppelin. It did have some standout tracks, including "Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweeter," with its array of James Brown-inspired brass hits, and a deliciously blue song in "The Great Flood" unveiling some drawn-out improvisation and guitar/saxophone interplay.

A New Dose in Black Rock

The history of Bonamassa's discography suggests advancement over the years, and the latest release is no exception. Released tomorrow, Black Rock showcases some of his finest vocal delivery, particularly on his cover of Otis Rush's two-minute straight-ahead blues, "Three Times a Fool." He also hones his guitar chops as he covers the Jeff Beck Group for the second time in his studio output. This time, it's the Rod Stewart vocal track "Spanish Boots"; before, the Jeff Beck Group's "Blues Deluxe" from Truth became the title track to Bonamassa's 2003 blues album. (A great live version of the Beck-Ola instrumental "Rice Pudding" also graces Bonamassa's earlier A New Day Yesterday Live 12-21-01, also available on DVD.)

Black Rock takes its name from the studio in Greece where it was recorded, and part of it serves as a postcard from Bonamassa's visit to the country. Songs like "Quarryman's Lament" and Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" bear the foreign stamp with instrumentation never heard before on any Bonamassa disc -- or any of Led Zeppelin's either. Audible right from the beginning along with Bonamassa's acoustic guitar is the clarino (think clarinet) of Thanasis Vasilopoulos, and joining in shortly thereafter on bouzouki (think lute or mandolin) is Manolis Karadinis. Neither of these Greek musicians spoke any English, producer Kevin Shirley recently revealed to Mix magazine.

But the Jeff Beck Group is not the only British blues-based rock band he's evoking on Black Rock. You guessed it! There's some Led Zeppelin in there. The disc kicks off with a Zeppelin-style guitar riff that appears once and then inexplicably drops off to segue into "Steal Your Heart Away," a Bobby Parker song that Bonamassa acknowledges was suggested to him personally by Robert Plant. The heaviest song on the album is "Blue and Evil," which has sort of the feel of "The Ocean" as filtered through modern imitators like Audioslave or Wolfmother. Here, Bonamassa again stretches his muscles far beyond the blues of his past records and conjures up about as fitting a guitar solo as could be there. He says it was inspired by Jimmy Page. (Go ahead and download "Blue and Evil"; it's free from Amazon MP3!)

Two minutes into "Bird on a Wire" starts a familiar drum sound. While drum duties on Black Rock are split between Bogie Bowles and Anton Fig (Late Show with David Letterman), one might almost swear it's a sample of John Bonham. That's not the first time for a Bonamassa track either; check out Fig's drumming on "Ball Peen Hammer" from Sloe Gin in 2007, and again you'll think you're hearing Bonham sampled, much more so than anything his own son laid down for You & Me in 2006.

Eric Clapton fans will also find some things drawn from that guitarist's past. The aforementioned "Three Times a Fool" bears some musical resemblance to Clapton's version of "I'm Tore Down" on From the Cradle from 1994. Quotes from the 1960s follow on "Wandering Earth," which draws musically from Cream's cover of "Sitting on Top of the World," and on "Look over Yonders Wall," as Bonamassa's guitar part seconds into the song quotes from Clapton's unforgettable solo in his take on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" with Cream.

Mentioning these sources of inspiration likely does no injustice to Bonamassa, who has frequently in the past made it plain whenever he was quoting something. Take, for example, his insert of a few bars from the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" on the live version of "If Heartaches Were Nickels" (written by Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers) on From Nowhere in Particular; it fits right in because the song always screamed out for it, right from the very first time Bonamassa recorded it, for his 2000 album A New Day Yesterday, as a vocal duet between Leslie West of Mountain and Gregg Allman.

Those guest appearances, and another spot by Rick Derringer on that same album, are about the only special guests Bonamassa has welcomed over the years. (Clapton did sit in, however, as the 2009 DVD Live from the Royal Albert Hall was recorded, as did singer Paul Jones of Manfred Mann.) Bonamassa's most notable in-studio guest appearance to date occurs on Black Rock as B.B. King helps to cover the classic blues number "Night Life," lending both guitar and vocals. What's refreshing on this take is that their voices don't exactly blend; there's been no attempt to synchronize their vocals. It is simply a case of leaving it the way it sounded, which is pretty much a Led Zeppelin thing to do.

Bonamassa does many Zeppelin things, it seems, and it also seems this new disc is definitely worth the investment for readers here. Physical copies are selling at Amazon for $9.99.

1 comment:

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