There’s something special about Joe Bonamassa’s third studio album, Blues Deluxe. Not that there wasn’t something very special about his first two albums, “A New Day Yesterday” and “So It’s Like That.” The latter did, after all, hit #1 on the Billboard blues charts, an unbelievable feat for a young burgeoning bluesman. But on the first two, Joe Bonamassa had not fully tapped into his identity as a bluesman. Not yet. There was plenty of blues influence, especially influence from the kind of British blues that made such an impression on young Joe Bonamassa when he was still just a young kid, a blues prodigy.
But Joe Bonamassa, successful as he already was, was still trying to figure out exactly what his identity was as an up and coming musician. In essence, he had two paths to choose from. On the one hand, he could shift more towards the commercial route. Become a bonafide rock star. Follow in the steps of musicians who were making a fortune playing the kind of acoustic adult contemporary that set young teenage hearts aflutter. On the other hand, Bonamassa could veer more towards a straight blues / blues-rock direction.
The latter choice was not without risks. One doesn’t need to be that familiar with the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard top 200 albums to know that in the mainstream, with its accompanying fame and fortune, the music industry seems to have a lot more room for pop/rock than it does for the blues. And forget becoming a huge celebrity – one has to figure that it’s easier just to be able to afford to eat playing a massively popular genre like straight up modern rock than it would be with a genre that has always been a little bit more of a niche like the blues. So Joe could have taken the easy way out.
Joe Bonamassa did not take the easy way out.
History is littered with sell-outs, those that would give up their true dreams, integrity, and artistic vision in the service of chasing the almighty dollar. But that’s just not who Joe Bonamassa is. Bonamassa is a bluesman. He’s always been a bluesman. When he was a little kid, listening to Jeff Beck he was a bluesman. When he was merely 12 years old and opening shows for B.B. King, he was a bluesman. When he cut his first solo studio record, “A New Day Yesterday” and opened the set with a cover of, of all things, a Rory Gallagher song, he was a bluesman.
Blues Deluxe is Joe’s way of asserting that he above all else is a bluesman. Joe recorded an episode for The Pickup Radio called “The Roots of Blues Deluxe.” The word “roots” here is key, for “Blues Deluxe” is a return to Joe’s deepest blues roots. And while Joe’s musical odyssey began with his discovery of the British blues, blues, of course, grew out of the fertile soil of America. Blues is an American music first and foremost, and with the exception, interestingly, of the title track, this is an album full of good ol’ fashioned American blues.
Joe opens Blues Deluxe with the B.B. King classic “You Upset Me Baby” from his Live at the Regal set. Live at the Regal is considered by many to be one of the finest if not THE finest live blues albums ever recorded. It made quite an impression on the six year old version of Joe Bonamassa, who (little did he know) would then be opening for B.B. King a mere six years later. I can think of no better tribute to the American Blues and Joe’s place in it than to start off this album with a song by The King of the Blues.
Interestingly, Joe almost chose a different B.B. King tune to cut for the leadoff track, my personal favorite B.B. song, “How Blues Can You Get.” But ultimately Joe decided on this stunner for a couple of reasons, being what Joe has said are the “great lyrics” and “the best shuffle groove I’ve ever heard.” In the liner notes to the album, Joe calls B.B.’s voice “the distilled essence of the blues” and I could not agree more. As I’ve written before on this blog, to me, B.B. King is the blues as much as anyone could ever be, as much as a Robert Johnson or a Muddy Wolf.
Another cool thing about this record is listening to the ease – or at least that’s how it sounds – with which Joe is able to conquer a multitude of blues styles, remain true to their authenticity, but also keep them sounding fresh, new, and like Joe Bonamassa. One of my very favorite tracks on the album for this reason is the groovy John Lee Hooker boogie tune “Burning Hell,” which to me sounds kind of like John Lee Hooker on a combination of steroids and speed, in the best way possible. The song is also so interesting, and Joe comments on this as well, for the deepl, folkloric and almost religious spirit of the tune. The folklore and mythology of the blues is part of what makes them so powerful more a century after the Delta bluesmen were doing their thing. It’s built quite a powerful story.
Let’s make this a great weekend to celebrate Joe Bonamassa’s coming into his own with this phenomenal album. Spin it three or four times. Because these blues never get old.
– Brian R.