Blues-rock has a shortage of new heroes who can blend virtuosity and soul. With 2007’s versatile Sloe Gin, Joe Bonamassa stepped to the front of the pack. Now that album’s studio sequel, The Ballad of John Henry, is set for release on Feb. 24, offering another shot of heavy guitar that propels epics like the title track and quirky experiments like a stomp and stagger version of Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”
Once again Bonamassa is conjuring thick, creamy, classic tones with an armada of Gibson guitars, including his signature aged Les Paul Gold Top and a collection of amps that reflect his main influences: Eric Clapton’s Bluesbreakers and Cream eras, and the highballing slide guitarist Rory Gallagher. But The Ballad of John Henry is a less subtle affair than Sloe Gin, which drew the 31-year-old Utica, N.Y., native’s 20 years of stage and studio experience to a fine point.
This time Bonamassa’s written most of the songs himself and checks in with an eclectic blend of sources — Tom Waits, Anthony Newley, Tony Joe White and Tina Turner — for the rest. The Ballad of John Henry often combines acoustic rhythm tracks and fills with heavy electric turns within its songs, like the alternating verses of “Feelin’ Good,” a tune that’s spiked by Bonamassa’s moan-and-whinny slide. But overall the album has a live feel, getting plenty of propulsion from Bonamassa’s energetic playing and hard-belting vocal performances as well as tones that are obviously the product of amps opened wide.
“Happier Blues” seems to owe a debt to Eric Johnson, not only in the scope and melodicism, but in the fluid distortion — perhaps goosed by a Fuzz-Face pedal Bonamassa owns that was custom made for Johnson — and the volume swells of its core solo. And the title track, which opens with a Hendrixian blend of wah pedal and phase shifter, owes more to Zeppelin than Leadbelly’s song about the famed steel drivin’ man. Its main riff sounds like something Jimmy Page might have saved from the Physical Graffiti sessions, and there’s a violin section that echoes “Kashmir.”
Bonamassa’s current live rig rests on a classic foundation of Gibsons and Marshall and Marshall-style amplification. Among his six-strings are four Custom Shop Historic ’59 Les Pauls as well as his Joe Bonamassa Inspired By model. He runs four amp heads on stage: a 100-watt Silver Jubilee Marshall, a Category Five Joe Bonamassa JB-100 (based on Marshall’s ’68 Super Lead Plexi), a Two Rock 100-watt Signature 1 and a Van Wheeldon Twinkleland. The Silver Jubilee provides Bonamassa’s core sound, and the three other heads are switched in and out. His cabinets are Mojo’s with EV-12-L speakers. And that’s all goosed with a Vox Wah-Wah, the Fuzz-Face, a Gas pedal clean boost, and a Tube Screamer. It’s a simple but elegant rig — front-end push with effects color — all geared to generating plenty of the sweet mid-range that makes Bonamassa’s sound so big and appealing.
Despite his youth, Bonamassa’s been working at his tone for a good long while. Like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, he emerged as a guitar prodigy in the ’90s, even jamming on stage with B.B. King at age 11. Now, eight albums and as many years of relentless touring later, Bonamassa has developed an impressive tonal vocabulary, and with The Ballad of John Henry he’s further extended his standing as a major force among blues guitarists of all ages.