Different Shade Of Blues:
The Songwriting Evolution Of Joe Bonamassa
"He may cast a spell with his guitar pyrotechnics and blistering cover versions, but Joe Bonamassa's growing skill as a composer shouldn't be overlooked."
Different Shade Of Blues: The Songwriting Evolution Of Joe Bonamassa
He may cast a spell with his guitar pyrotechnics and blistering cover versions, but Joe Bonamassa's growing skill as a composer shouldn't be overlooked. With the American hotshot currently playing four nights at London's Hammersmith Apollo, we’ve trace the key stages of the man's songwriting development, from his early days as a solo artist, to the crafting of his first album of almost-all original material in over a decade, last year’s 'Different Shades Of Blue'.
In the beginning...
Bonamassa was in his early 20s when his songwriting took an introductory bow on his debut album, 'A New Day Yesterday', in 2000. At that point, his compositions were still in the embryonic stage and while they were powerful and well executed, they were lacking in character and indebted to his idols, most notably Erics Clapton and Johnson. However, a trio of cuts revealed a whiff things to come, with Miss You, Hate You demonstrating a penchant for melody not typically found in the blues, I Know Where I Belong showcasing his ability to blend shuffling funk withballsy rock and Colour And The Shape hinting at the dusky cowboy blues that would become a trademark in later years.
Laying the foundations…
'So It's Like That', Bonamassa’s 2002 sophomore effort, was essentially songwriting school. Each track was co-penned with well-travelled outside writers like Mark Lizotte, Mike Himelstein and Eric Pressly. Its radio-friendly hard rock, pop and country anthems are completely unrepresentative of the artist he became, but the record may actually be the most important of his career. My Mistake, Lie #1 and Waiting For Me show how writing with seasoned collaborators taught him to craft classically structured songs around a meaningful narrative, while it is bursting with a mature and infectious hooks.
Enter Kevin Shirley...
Bonamassa dove back into the blues on his next two offerings, but although ‘The River’ and ‘When She Dances’ are strong genre pieces, he didn’t develop a sound of his own or stand out from a pack of equally talented players like Walter Trout and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. When producer Kevin Shirley first saw Bonamassa he recognised that. “I went to go see Joe play at a club in Chicago, and I thought he was a good musician but a little limited stylistically. So after the show, I had a chat with him,” Shirley told Music Radar. “I told him: 'Joe, you're a wonderful player, but unless you're willing to trust me and go outside the box, there isn't much I can do for you."
Bonamassa’s early exposure to a range of diverse artists and styles – Cream, Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne, Jethro Tull, BB King - courtesy of his parents’ record collection, some classical guitar lessons lessons and tuition with rockabilly and jazz great Danny Gatton gave him an expansive musical arsenal that would allow him to twist the blues into a variety of exciting new shapes. And with Shirley coaxing all those latent nuances to the surface and giving him a much bigger sound, the pieces of the jigsaw started coming together.
The watershed moment...
The duo's first album together, 2006’s 'You & Me', didn't reinvent the blues so much as give it an electric shock, with Bridge To Better Days and Torn Down bursting with cocksure dynamism and confidence. Asking Around For You, a swooning ballad enhanced by gorgeous strings, became Bonamassa's first classic original. During a show in 2007, Bonamassa realised that was just the start. “We went on after Steely Dan at the North Sea Jazz Festival outside of Amsterdam,” he told Grammy. “Thirty seconds after we started, I realised: ‘Geez, Kid Charlemagne is still ringing in the room, and we're on. I don't have any songs.’ That was the beginning of an eight or nine year quest to amass material that really connects to people.”
A new direction...
Bonamassa and Shirley really started pushing the envelope with 'Sloe Gin', a record that whipped up a mixture of acoustic and electric blues with panache. Dirt In My Pocket seamlessly switched between folky picking and brutal distortion, melding different tones in a way that would colour future compositions like Black Lung Heartache and the psychedelic midsection of Oh Beautiful!.
Meanwhile, a growing soulfulness emerged on acoustic cuts Richmond and Around The Bend. The latter initially appeared on 'Had To Cry Today' with a full rhythm section that made it feel impetuous and rushed, but appeared here reworked as a slowed-down, reflective country song with the kind of world-worn sentiments that would be revisited on ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’ and ‘Different Shades Of Blue’.
The songwriter finds his voice...
In his early years, Bonamassa crafted the music for his songs, while mostly deferring to co-writers for lyrics. That changed in 2009 when he unleashed the game changing 'The Ballad Of John Henry'. Featuring six songs written solely by Bonamassa, it was the first time the guitarist's songs bested his covers as pain and passion took centre stage.
“Making the first half of the album I was in the happiest place I'd ever been in my life. The second half found me in completely the opposite state,” he scribbled in the album's sleeve notes. The epic Happier Times and The Great Flood bleed with that turmoil, as the former’s spine-tingling flamenco and the latter's isolated, ghostly blues chronicle a relationship that has crashed and burned. “I've come to the conclusion that experience makes for better art,” he continued. “I had more to say, and it's the first time I've personally opened up the book on my life.”
It's unclear whether Bonamassa and Shirley are psychic, but Led Zeppelin became a more prominent influence in the guitar hero's writing just before the current resurgence in retro-rock took flight, giving his work an edge. It had buzzed around in early songs like The River, but with the riff on The Ballad Of John Henry, boulder throwing motif of Story Of A Quarryman, and swirling licks on Blue And Evil, it became a defining aspect of his writing.
The world is his muse...
For 'Black Rock' and 'Dust Bowl', Bonamassa decamped to the Greek island of Santorini and allowed the rustic culture to seep into his increasingly expansive brand of blues. Magical contributions from local musicians flavoured Quarryman's Lament and snake charming hum of Athens To Athens, while Dust Bowl's cinematic sounds merged with a shadowy prowl and the strongest chorus of his career. By expanding his horizons and hurling himself into new musical arenas, Bonamassa’s writing was enriched.
Friends with benefits…
Bonamassa is something of a human sponge, absorbing impressions, insights and experiences, particularly on 'Different Shades Of Blue', where recent collaborations continued to influence him. The swinging groove of Love Ain't A Love Song recalled his work with Rock Candy Funk Party, while a layering of horns across the album makes it bounce like his R&B efforts with Beth Hart. The pile-driving ‘70s rock of Oh Beautiful! and swagger of Give Back My Tomorrow channel Black Country Communion.
The best is yet to come?
'Different Shades Of Blue' initially seemed too structured and deliberately commercial. But, place it within the context of Bonamassa's songwriting journey and every lesson and collaboration feeds into its tightly crafted songs. Much of the album was co-written with Nashville-based songsmiths like James House and Jeffrey Steele and such a move plays to his inner scholar. “Next time I go to write songs I think it's going to be a lot deeper for me,” he told the Huffington Post. “I learned a lot about songwriting just by hanging around those cats. They're lyric-writing dudes in the way they put words together and their song structure. There's really an artistry and a craft to it.”
Written by Simon Ramsay