Joe Bonamassa is a self-described electric guitar player, but even Joe has to strip the music down to the acoustic basics every now and again. This January has seen Bonamassa take an acoustic show on the road with him, and Thursday January 21st and Friday January 22nd will culminate in Joe’s first ever appearance at one of most sublime music stages in the entire world, the Perelman Stage in the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. He’s gathered a new ensemble of acclaimed international musicians – some of the best of the best- playing a variety of different instruments than we’ve heard in past acoustic sets from Joe. So, if you’ve been lucky to catch one of the shows on this tour, you’ve experienced something quite special. I’ll be attending the second Carnegie Hall show on Friday, and I am absolutely ecstatic!
In the meantime, I’ve been putting myself in the “acoustic” mood this week. I’ve listened to a LOT of Bonamassa’s An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House which is one of my very favorite live albums he’s put out. But I’ve also been spinning some other favorite acoustic guitar albums. So to celebrate Joe’s acoustic shows, the Carnegie Hall extravaganza, and wonderful acoustic guitar music in general, I’m put together a list of 5 absolutely essential acoustic guitar albums. Not all of them are entirely acoustic – Neil Young’s for example, but each is driven by the instrument in an essential way. Without further ado, here are 5 of the essential acoustic guitar albums:
1. Neil Young – Harvest
In the early days, Harvest was panned by the critics. But they’ve come around on this gem. Harvest represents a shift that Neil Young took into a country-tinged direction, employing lots of acoustic guitar and lap pedal steel. Even the title is evocative of the country; the agricultural aspect of America. It also proved to be one of his most popular albums. The #1 Billboard album released by Reprise Records in 1972 was the best-selling album of that year and went on to move over 4 million units. The music itself is often spectacular, occasionally overwrought. The use of the London Symphony Orchestra on two tracks was unnecessary. But #1 hit single “Heart of Gold” is a certifiable country-rock classic and the devastating solo acoustic performance of “The Needle and The Damage Done”, recorded live, is a treasure too.
2. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s sophomore album was his very masterpiece. It taught the entire world what kind of musical magic was capable from a single man, a pen, and an acoustic guitar. And what was capable was unlimited. These songs wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if Dylan has gone electric this early – their barebones, all-natural approach suits them perfectly. And make no mistake about it, many of the songs on this album are amongst the best ever written. “Blowin’ In the Wind” is a jaw-dropping jewel of an album-opener. It’s one of the very best existential statements on mankind’s human condition, rivaled by John Lennon’s “Imagine” and not too many others. Another thing to note. The melodic content of the song was derived from black spiritual music and discloses the blues connection and roots that certainly grew somewhat intertwined with his straight up acoustic-folk. The album shifts from political protest (Masters of War) to former love remembered fondly (Girl from the North Country) and not so fondly (Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” . Every post-Freewheelin’ folk album owes some debt to this masterpiece.
3. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
America is the land of hope and glory and opportunity, especially Bruce Springsteen, ebullient and creator of marathon rock parties. Not this time. Bruce Springsteen’s first acoustic album depicts American as a place high on crime, deep desperation, and on hopelessness. Although this set was originally a demo meant to be re-recorded with full band treatments, Springsteen’s manager and champion John Landau and others close to Springsteen thought that the demos captured the right aesthetic effect for this set of bleak and intimate songs. As these were self-recorded demos, the instrumentation is spare and entirely played by Springsteen, most prominently acoustic guitar and harmonica. Even the more upbeat moments on the album from a musical perspective, like the relative fast-driving “Johnny 99” have a darkness crystallizing over their lyrics that point to the humanity’s pain, despair, and sometimes even nihilism, as on the openings murderous title track (inspired by the same events as the classic film Badlands). If you ever wanted to argue that Springsteen’s soft side was his best side, this is the album for you.
4. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
This extraordinary album was the last released before Johnny Cash’s passing. What he left us with was a musical miracle. This is the fourth effort by the acclaimed team of Cash and producer Rick Rubin. Rubin had revitalized Cash’s career with American Recording, the first in the series. However, the fourth in this stunning series truly shines most brightly. It is stripped down even more than usual. Only Cash’s mostly gentle acoustic strumming and added piano emphasis are here to augment his voice, which sounds like it has both all the wisdom and the pain of a man who has lived hard and fast and also with passion for 1,000 years. Contrast this pared down approach with previous efforts that included instrumentation from the likes of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, for example. Cash delivers a few standout originals, including the spine-tingling apocalyptic vision of the title song, “The Man Comes Around”. But more impressive is the wide eclectic mix of cover songs ranging from artists like Sting and Depeche Mode to Nine Inch Nails to Vera Lynn. Cash makes every tune more than his own and strings them all seamlessly together into one unforgettable album.
5. Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers
Yes, it’s a compilation album, but what a compilation album it is. It’s the album that introduced the ’60s generation of musicians and bohemians to the spellbinding, eminently powerful magic of Robert Johnson’s music. Before the release of this album, the original singles issued by the record company Vocalion were hard to come by. At the height of the American folk music revival, A&R wizard John Hammond managed to convince Columbia Records, who now owned the Vocalion catalog, to release a compilation of Hammond’s music. He was right in his thinking that Johnson’s music would profoundly touch and influence those interested in blues music. Before the album was officially released, Hammond slipped a copy of the record into Bob Dylan’s hands. Dylan was stunned and spellbound by the haunting power and intensity of Robert Johnson’s music – before this, Dylan was completely unfamiliar with the man and his work. King of the Delta Blues Singers was a major influence to a whole generation of American and British musicians, not least of which was Eric Clapton. Clapton’s has said his early approach to recording music was largely inspired by this compilation. The compilation includes a treasure trove of Johnson’s best songs, including “Cross Road Blues”, “Terraplane Blues”, and “Hell Hound on My Trail”.