Blues of Desperation
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Everybody knows Joe Bonamassa has awesome chops, as he demonstrates on album after album. But he’s always been pretty conscious of the quality of the songwriting on his records as well, and on Blues of Desperation he reaches out to a group of people whose bread and butter is the song.
All but one track on Blues of Desperation was co-written by Bonamassa and a cadre of big-time Nashville songwriters that includes Tom Hambridge, Jeffrey Steele, Gary Nicholson, Jerry Flowers, and, on six tracks, James House. All of these guys are known for monster modern country cuts, and Hambridge and Nicholson have extensive blues catalogs as well. But they’re all also professional musicians; all but Flowers (Keith Urban’s bassist) are respected solo artists in their own rights. So they understand how to write songs with lyrics designed to do more than just give the lead player a breather, something Bonamassa, unlike many blues/rock players, understands as well.
The tunes here aren’t necessarily in a class with some of the material Bonamassa has recorded in past years, songs by blues giants like Willie Dixon or writers like John Hiatt and Tom Waits. But they suit the artist perfectly. The first single, “Drive,” about escaping the rigors of everyday life, brings Chris Isaak to mind, while the hard-times-and-despair theme of “Mountain Climbing” and the Led Zep-ish title track would have seen good rotation on AOR stations back in the day. There’s some Gospel influence (“The Valley Runs Low”), a little humor (“You Left Me with Nothing but the Bill and the Blues”), and even a couple train songs. The album also succeeds because of the production decisions of Kevin Shirley, who has not only worked with stadium bands like Journey and Aerosmith, but with writers like Josh Ritter and Hiatt. There are times when Reese Wynans’ piano seems a little intrusive, but this is a small price to pay for an otherwise solid product.
Like so many, Bonamassa isn’t a pure singer, but another guitar player who sings out of necessity. He does the absolute most that he can with what he’s got vocally, though, and both his voice and his confidence are as good as ever here. He plays his butt off as usual, not in terms of tossing out 32nd notes, but in playing what’s best for the song, something he hasn’t always done. He also uses an arsenal of vintage axes to deliver just the right sound to complement each tune. Clocking in at about an hour, Blues of Desperation is highly recommended for anyone who is bemoaning the dearth of blues-rock guitar in today’s world, and for those who want to hear some of Nashville’s top writers stretch beyond their usual three-minute airplay confines.