By Steve Newton
For his latest album, American guitar hero Joe Bonamassa came up with one helluva great idea. Or at least his producer, Kevin Shirley, did.
The plan was to record a one-off concert dedicated to the music of blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and the resultant double disc—Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks—is one of the all-time best tributes to the sounds of the Mississippi Delta.
Bonamassa is known for discovering the blues at an early age—and famously opening for B.B. King at the age of 12—but he wasn’t all that versed in the works of Waters and Wolf as a child.
“It’s something that I kind of discovered later,” explains the 37-year-old musician, calling from backstage before a sold-out show in Colorado Springs. “But hey, it’s better late than never, you know. And to go back and explore that catalogue was just really a lot of fun.”
The Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks CD—also released on DVD and Blu-ray—opens with a prerecorded intro by Bonamassa describing how he felt going down to the Delta to get a feel for the land that was home to Waters and Wolf, and so many other blues greats.
“It’s a very, very magical place,” he relates. “It’s a pilgrimage you have to do if you’re a blues fan, you know.”
One of the coolest aspects of Muddy Wolf is how Bonamassa used original recordings by Waters and Wolf—“Tiger in Your Tank” and “How Many More Years”, respectively—as springboards before his live band kicks in and takes over.
“We had to do that to show you where the music was coming from,” he explains. “And it was kind of a fitting tribute.”
Besides Bonamassa’s superior fretwork, Muddy Wolf boasts killer keyboards by Reese Wynans, formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. Wynans is also featured on Bonamassa’s current North American tour, which combines songs from the Muddy Wolf project with Bonamassa originals. The tour visits Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre this Monday and Tuesday (May 11 and 12).
The guitarist will be switching gears this summer, though, when he embarks on the Three Kings of Blues tour, which will see him pay tribute to Albert, Freddie, and old mentor B.B. King. “That was the next logical step,” he asserts.
Dedicated Bonamassa followers are aware that he took time off from his solo career in 2009 to form the supergroup Black Country Communion, which also included former Deep Purple bassist-vocalist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham (son of Zeppelin’s John), and ex–Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian. But after three studio albums—all produced by Shirley—that union collapsed in 2013, much to the chagrin of classic-rock-minded fans.
“Being in a band’s probably not for me,” says Bonamassa in retrospect. “We did the rock band and it was fine, it sounded good, but I’m not a full-time rock ’n’ roll guy. I like blues. So that’s, you know… It is what it is.”