May 28, 2024

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CD review: Joe Bonamassa – Time Clocks – 2023: Video, CD cover

A guitarist with chops so distinctive that he’s become an industry unto himself, Joe Bonamassa has steadily pushed the boundaries on his most recent studio albums, redefining his playing style in different ways he’s set foot in the studio. And that’s never been more evident than on this interesting effort, which ranges from introspective ballads to balls-to-walls blues-rock guaranteed to get even his harshest critic to sit up and take notice.

Recorded at the height of the coronavirus epidemic, it was produced long-distance by Kevin Shirley, Bonamassa’s longtime partner, thanks to electronic wizardry that hooked up the board Joe was using at Germano Studios/The Hit Factory in New York City and Kevin’s at The Cave in Sydney, Australia – the end product of which was polished by Bob Clearmountain (Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen) at Mix This! in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

The uncertainties and struggles of life under COVID are reflected in lyrics that deal with anxiety and insights along with moments of deep contemplation, all of which are laid down atop expansive arrangements across multiple genres that fluctuate in depth and intensity to reflect the mood.

Like the theme, for Joe, being sequestered in Manhattan was almost a return to his beginning because, as he mentions in the liner notes, it had been 20 years since he’d recorded Blues Deluxe in the city at a time when, as a struggling artist, he was buyin lottery tickets and hoping to hit the jackpot while living on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles.

The all-star lineup includes Steve Mackey (Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Tinsley Ellis) on bass and Anton Fig (Bob Dylan, the Stones) and Bobby Summerfield on percussion along with Bunna Lawrie on didgeridoo with Mahalia Barnes, Juanita Tippans and Prinnie Stevens providing backing vocals. They’re augmented by Shirley on keys and percussion, Lachey Doley on piano and Rob McNelley along with The Bovaland Orchestra.

Bonamassa penned all ten tracks in partnerships with Shirley, Summerfield, James House, Bernie Marsden, Tom Hambridge, Angela Bonagura and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. The disc opens with  “Pilgrimage,” a 56-second instrumental fronted that’s similar to a cinematic mood-setter, opening quietly after a brief silence and then building in intensity to an unexpected close.

It gives way to “Notches,” a seven-minute blues-rocker with psychedelic overtones in which Joe’s strong, single-note lead lines play counterpoint to the rhythm. The lyrics describe Bonamassa’s worldly adventures and allude to difficulties encountered along the way, noting that all the paths he’s traveled lead back to his home and the blues. A blues-rock run opens “The Heart That Never Waits,” a sly tip of the hat to Robert Cray, before settling quickly into a steady, mid-tempo shuffle in which the female chorus mirror the chorus.

The music sweetens with “Time Clocks,” which opens as a ballad and builds intensity after the first verse. It’s an autobiographic number that states the singer’s never been fond of having to punch in at work and that he’s only been good at “ringing bells, kissing rings.” It gives way to “Questions and Answers,” a full-bore rocker that deals with the bitterness he’s endured because of a deceitful gal pal, a theme that bubbles under the surface of the contemplative blues-rocker, “Mind’s Eye,” which expresses exasperation and the need come to terms with both sides of the story.

Driven by a regimented military beat, “Curtain Call” follows and finds Bonamassa on acoustic for “the march of a broken soul.” Another rocker, “The Loyal Kind,” precedes “Hanging on a Loser,” a true-blue effort that features Joe on slide and comes with a honkytonk feel. “Known Unknowns,” a song of regret following failed attempts to save a relationship, brings the disc to a close.

As usual, Joe Bonamassa’s fretwork shines throughout but his lyrics are just as strong in this set. Strongly recommended for lovers of blues-rock.

Joe Bonamassa - Time Clocks - Blues Magazine

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