Album review: JOE BONAMASSA – Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks

JOE BONAMASSA – Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks

Provogue [Released 23.03.15]

The mission statement for this project comes right at the beginning of the credits under the ‘Keeping The Blues Alive’ banner, which is also the name of Joe Bonamassa’s charitable blues foundation for keeping music alive in schools.

Filmed at the stunning Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, the main focus of ‘Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks’ is the three set concert of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s back catalogue and Joe’s songs,  though the 4 disc, double CD and DVD presentation is equally about the contextualization of Joe’s own blues career.

Much like Clapton before him, he’s reached a high point in his career where it’s time to reflect on the blues antecedents that brought him to where he is today, though the sheer scale of pre-planning, playing, recording and filming of the Red Rocks concert suggests he’s a restless talent always on the lookout a new challenge.

The additional DVD of ‘Joe and Kevin’s Excellent Adventure… to The Crossroads’ is succinctly summarised by Joe as being about: “The fascination of where the music can go, given the right inspiration and given the right kind of palette to paint with”.

The fact that the liner notes include his February and March European tour dates, suggests that no matter what the scale of this project, he’s probably already be thinking ahead to the next one, as evidenced by the remark that: “This year we’re doing the catalogue of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.”

Joe successfully posits himself as a conduit between the past and present, in front of 9,000 people who confirm that the blues is alive and well, albeit very middle aged.

As it is there are already plenty of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tributes in the can, ranging from The Muddy Waters Tribute Band album to Paul Rodgers, and the Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson album.  Ditto Wolf, who has been covered by The Groundhogs, Omar Dykes, Tomás Doncke and the 1998 Grammy nominated Telarc compilation album.

But this release broadens its scope with an accompanying documentary that draws us into Joe’s Chevy driven road trip with Kevin Shirley.  Subtitled, ‘A Pilgrimage to the Roots of the Blues’, it takes them to The Crossroads – both of them, in Clarksdale and Rosedale – and leads Joe to answer his own question about the place. “Is it the myth, is it a musical place?’ He concludes that: “It’s a combination of culture environment, necessity and life experience”.

And it’s his ability to be able to tap into all those elements and add his own musical driving force that gives this project its integrity.

Joe successfully posits himself as a conduit between the past and present, in front of 9,000 people who confirm that the blues is alive and well, albeit very middle aged.

His all star band is formally dressed for the occasion in what his producer Kevin Shirley calls a show of: “Respect, to present the gravitas and sensibility of the music”.

There’s also a clever mix of historical clips and a mid-song segue from the past to the present on Muddy’s ‘Tiger In Your Tank’.  Joe switches to slide on ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ and explores some cool dynamics on ‘You Shook Me’, later identified by Kevin Shirley as a natural choice for the project given its Zeppelin connotations.

It also provides a great filmic moment when DVD director Philippe Klose’s camera work captures the connection between Joe’s solo, his band’s interplay and members of the audience who rise to their feet in appreciation.

…in one fell swoop he thrillingly illuminates how the blues had a baby and called it rock and roll!

‘Stuff You Gotta Watch’ is a horn pumping shuffle with shared solos and Joe’s uplifting resolution and he’s closer to Gary Moore than Muddy in use of tone and vibrato on  ‘Double Trouble’. He then reverts to slide on ‘My Home Is On The Delta ‘a slow brush stroked blues with nuanced volume swells all neatly filmed as the sun goes down against a backdrop of the surrounding terrain.

On both ‘Real Love’ and Wolf’s ‘How Many More Years’ he’s smart enough to rely on his solo’s for extra emotional depth to make up for wavering vocals. On the latter in particular, he initially tries too hard to over compensate for a thin vocal with a gritty attack on which he doesn’t sound comfortable.

The Wolf catalogue overlooks the more obvious possibilities like ‘Smokestack Lightning’, ‘Who’s Been Talkin’ and ‘Wang Dang Doodle’, but does include ‘Spoonful’ on which he hits an extended note and adds another burning solo.  His own exuberance nearly get the better of him when he momentarily shouts on ‘Evil’, but his ‘road chops’ transforms the piece to something all of his own and in one fell swoop he thrillingly illuminates how the blues had a baby and called it rock and roll!

Everything comes together perfectly on ‘All Night Boogie (All Night Long)’ as Kirk Fletcher adds a precise solo and Joe’s defining finish earns him a deserved ovation.

He returns for an extended encore of his own material, via Hendrix’s ‘Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)’ and the acapella top and tailed 70’s style, riff-led ‘Oh Beautiful!’. It’s a well thought out piece from his new album that doesn’t quite have the impact the arrangement deserves.

‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’ is the opposite, being a triumph of space, dynamics and inspired playing as it flows into a seamless hook. This song alone makes the perfect connection between the past and present, right down to the intricate breakdown coloured by a combination of volume swells, sweet notes and horn accents on a smoking blues.

Joe really hits his stride on the show-stopping ‘Sloe Gin’, complete with an expansive vocal and a soaring solo, while the riff driven ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ perfectly encapsulates his role in the vanguard of contemporary blues and makes the connection between two giants of the blues and his own contemporary style.

‘Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks’ also includes a behind the scenes section, archive footage and concert photos and achieves its aim of paying homage to both Mud and Wolf, though the subtext of the project seems to be that it might be the first of a series of such tributes.

If so who better than JB and this band to take us on another well researched, superbly played and sympathetically filmed histo-musical journey?  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Gig review (19 March 2015)

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