Blues-rocker Joe Bonamassa has made a habit of having a specific theme or a musical direction in place before recording many of his solo albums.
For his new album, “Blues of Desperation,” the concept came from Bonamassa’s long-time producer Kevin Shirley, who wanted the album to feature Bonamassa on guitar, bass and — here’s the twist — two drummers.
Bonamassa said he wasn’t sold on the drummer format when Shirley presented it.
“You’d probably have to ask the two drummers, Greg (Morrow) and Anton (Fig), and they’d probably say the same thing. ‘We don’t think this is going to work, frankly,’” Bonamassa said. “And I didn’t think it was going to work. But Kevin has this thing, when he hears something and he knows how to put the right people in the room to achieve that, that you cannot discount that for one minute. That’s why he’s a great producer.”
Bonamassa will take stage at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 19 at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are still available. Visit kirbycenter.org or ticketmaster.com to purchase.
The presence of two drummers on “Blues of Desperation” isn’t quite as apparent as it is, for instance, on Allman Brothers Band albums, where that group’s its tandem of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe tended to play different, but complementary patterns.
There’s some of that approach on “Blues of Desperation,” but more often Morrow and Fig sync up more closely and the result is the fat rhythms that kick up the power on many of the album’s rockers. On “This Train,” the crackling drum track recalls the beat Aerosmith used on “Back in the Saddle.” A couple of songs (“Mountain Climbing” and the title track) have the kind of thundering beats Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham brought to that band’s music. The rolling drums on “Distant Lonesome Train” give the song a cool tribal blues feel.
“Well, the Allmans, that’s a different thing altogether,” Bonamassa said of the rhythmic approach of the new album. “That’s more of a soup, where the way we approached this was two separate parts making one beat. And if you play each part ala carte, it would almost sound disjointed and not like drums. But when you come with the two parts, and you have a straight versus a swing, I mean, that’s when it really, no pun intended, that’s when it really starts to swing.”
The potent rhythms are a selling point on “Blues of Desperation,” but so are the meaty guitar riffs and leads and vocal melodies that turn tunes like “This Train,” “Mountain Climbing” (with its great descending signature riff) and the notably bluesy, string-accented “No Good Place For The Lonely” into standout rockers. The album also features several first-rate ballads in “How Deep This River Runs” (which has an epic feel), the ghostly “Drive” and the more acoustic and soulful “The Valley Runs Low.”
Such songs suggest Bonamassa is doing some of the best songwriting in a career that now stretches back more than 25 years to when the Utica, New York native arrived on the scene as a pre-teen guitar prodigy playing some 20 shows with B.B. King by the time he was 12 years old.
But the real coming out party for Bonamassa, 38, came in 1995, as a featured member of the band Bloodline. That group broke up after one album, and Bonamassa launched his solo career. His first significant impact came with his sixth album, 2007’s “Sloe Gin.”
He followed the “Sloe Gin” album with seven more studio albums, including “The Ballad of John Henry” (2009), “Black Rock” (2010) and “Driving Towards the Daylight (2012).
But where Bonamassa, up to that point, included a good number of covers on most of his albums, he has focused on all-original material on “Blues of Desperation” and his 2014 album “Different Shades of Blue.” And after writing his original songs, these two most recent albums have seen him co-write with several seasoned tunesmiths, including James House, Jeffrey Steele and Jerry Flowers.
Bonamassa said the skills of his co-writers complement his strengths as a songwriter.
“Well, these guys are song guys,” he said. “These guys know the structures and they know what songs and what they don’t need. I’m a riff guy. I know how to make blues-rock. So it’s the marriage of the two.”
Bonamassa is showcasing a good chunk of “Blues of Desperation” on his current spring tour. He uses one drummer live (Fig), but along with Michael Rhodes on bass, added keyboards (Reese Wynans), trumpet (Lee Thornburg) and saxophone (Paulie Cerra).
“It’s a killer six-piece band,“ Bonamassa said. “Yeah, the shows have been going great. We’re doing a lot of stuff on the new album. We’re doing some stuff from the new album, some stuff from the old albums and all points in between.
Alan Sculley is a Weekender correspondent. Reach Weekender at [email protected]
IF YOU GO
What: Joe Bonamassa
Where: The F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts
When: Thursday, May 19
Time: Doors open at 6:30 p.m. show starts at 8 p.m.