Album Reviews: Joe Bonamassa – The Ballad of John Henry (2009)


Following the success of his “Sloe Gin” and “Live From Nowhere In Particular” albums Joe Bonamassa returned to the studio with producer Kevin Shirley and came up with another exciting quality mixture of originals and covers in the shape of “The Ballad of John Henry”.

Dirty, gritty and bluesy, but polished where necessarry and with a great overall feeling of class and quality would be the best description I could give in one line. Talking in more depth though opening track and title cut ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ has a great driving rhythm with a strutting stomping riff and an instantly singable vocal melody. The quieter part to the verse helps to accentuate the power of the chorus and adds to the overall quality of the track. This is rock blues crossover composing at its best. Despite being the subject of a million blues related tracks though this has a far more hard rock feel about it and the part around the two and a three quarter minute mark is straight from the Led Zeppelin songwriting book. It is certainly my favourite track from the album and for me it is one of the best tracks he has ever recorded. The second track ‘Stop’ is a cover of the Sam Brown hit. At first it seems an unlikely choice of cover and not just because the original had a female vocal and was a pop hit. In fact the first time I heard it I didn’t even recognise it until the chorus such is the difference in the arrangement. Much slower and very bluesy. With Bonamassa doing his best Paul Rodgers impression vocally and also managing to sound a little Kossoff like in places on the guitar it is not unlike “Heartbreaker” era Free. Curiously enough a track which he went on to record later. I have been a big fan of Sam Brown for years and it is a credit to Bonamassa that he has taken a song which will forever in my mind belong to another artist and give it a totally new lease of life. Despite my early misgivings it has fast become one of my favourites on the album and provides a great opening one two punch with the title track. In fact for me the album doesn’t ever get any better than the first two tracks even if it does get almost equalled at times. 

‘Last Kiss’ has a pounding drum beat and some great siren and steam train guitar going on. It is classic blues rock in the Bonamassa style and it is easy to see why he fancied a crack at an out an out rock band experience with Black Country Communion when you listen to it. The song still manages to go off into a more standard blues ending during its seven minute plus lifetime though. The Tom Waits composed ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ is a different beast altogether. Jazzy and funky but very dark with a sleazy vocal not unlike ‘Willie The Pimp”. The heavy blues riffing power of the guitar comes in between the verses and makes a superb contrast. There is even something that sounds curiously like a banjo in there somewhere but I can find no credit for anyone playing one so I assume it is Bonamassa doing something with a guitar or my ears playing silly devils. The chugging solo over the honky tonk bar room piano to fade gives the song an interesting and good ending. ‘Story of a Quarryman’ has a dirty rock riff throughout and is probably more of a hard rock track than a blues track. Power rather than finesse is certainly to the fore. ‘Lonesome Road Blues’ is almost like a faster paced version of ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’ vocal melody wise over the top of a pretty standard ‘Crossroads’ like blues groove musically. This is just straight up British blues boom music and it is three minutes of good solid fun. ‘Happier Times’ is another Bonamassa epic that starts off slowly with some nice spanish sounding acoustic guitar over the electric backing. Bonamassa’s almost whispered vocal gives it a nice atmosphere. The guitar sound manages to remind me of Ritchie Blackmore in places, particularly on the acoustic parts. The part around the three and a half minute mark also brings to mind Blackmore’s work on Deep Purple’s Fireball album. ‘Feelin Good’ is usually more of a vehicle for singers and Bonamassa manages a good jazz blues delivery. Music wise it has a nice jazzy feel too although the guitar solo is one of the quickest on here and is in more of a rock vein. It provides quite a contrast to the main body of the song and works well.

Possibly an even bigger surprise than the success of ‘Stop’ is the wonderful ‘Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter’. It features some big time soul horn work and is another totally different sounding song to the others on the album. This has elements of jazz, funk, soul and even motown to go along with the blues and hard rock. The final solo veers effortlessly between hard rock and blues and is a perfect ending to a completely enjoyable song. Originally recorded by Ike and Tina Turner it is the third cover on here that shouldn’t really work but totally does. Sometimes it pays to brave it would seem. ‘The Great Flood’ is the longest song on the album and the opening riff is almost like polished Black Sabbath. Demonic and haunting. The vocal and soloing over the top though are classic hard rock blues in the same vein as Led Zeppelin. The chiming bells to end the track after the lengthy solo give the track a haunting and menacing ending. It is a quality track full of feeling despite the lack of any great tempo change. The guitar may well be the best blues soloing on the album. ‘From The Valley’ is an instrumental and also the shortest song on the album. It is another with a Zeppelin feel about it although this time you can throw a bit of Django Reinhardt and eastern mysticism in there as well. Closing track ‘As The Crow Flies’ is a nice stomping blues rocker that is not unlike early Free. The flat tyres on a muddy road analogy springing easily to mind. The influence of Paul Rodgers on Bonamassa vocally is extemely evident here. The track and album ends with a good jazzy blues rock solo to fade. Not necessarily an ideal end to the album song wise to my mind but placement would be the only fault in an otherwise good track.

“The Ballad of John Henry” is a mighty fine album and is a perfect example of how a little bit of imagination and re-arrangement when it comes to covers can prove to be extremely beneficial. Bonamassa continues to give enough authentic blues to keep the blues fans happpy as well as throwing in enough hard rock licks to make him the chosen blues six stringer of the rock brigade. The natural successor to Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore. Add to that the ability to take out and out pop songs, classic old crooner material and a bit of good time uptempo soul soaked funk and make it all sit happily together and you have got one very talented individual indeed.

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM October 2011

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About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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