In the space of one week in early November 2021, two albums landed in my mailbox to remind me it was time to do a good old fashioned album review column. Regular readers of this column would no doubt agree the range of topics covered here is ‘eclectic’, but in the early days, the majority of these FTV articles were music related. When I go too far astray from the original mission of WOAS-FM (sharing music), it never hurts to have a couple of dynamite records drop into my lap to get me back to our roots. The title Peggy and Joe references Milwaukee’s own Peggy James and a former child blues phenom named Joe Bonamassa. The albums in question are James’ The Parade and Joe B’s Time Clocks, both released late in 2021.
A quick ‘Peggy’ recap: Late in 2020, Gary Tanin of Daystorm Music sent along a single we reviewed entitled Hard Times with the promise of more new singles being released in 2021, When the next singles, Guardian Angel and Joan of Arc, arrived, they were covered in on-line FTV announcements in January and May, respectively (see www.woas-fm.org). Gary said they intended to include these three songs with additional tracks for a full album and lo and behold, The Parade arrived right around the time of its’ digital release date, November 19, 2021. The album’s physical release will come sometime in February or March 2022. Having previously gushed about how the previously released tracks helped us weather the COVID-19 pandemic, I was anxiously waiting to hear the full album. Following is a track by track synopsis of what to expect from the latest gem from Peggy, Jim Eannelli (who recorded the album), and Gary (who Mastered the record).
Go With Me opens with a swell of strings that immediately reminded me of Sir George Martin’s work with The Beatles. Come to think of it, the drum track also sounds very ‘Ringo’, but this isn’t by any means any form of ‘let’s write a song that sounds like The Beatles’. Peggy is a true master when it comes to writing songs that tell a story, in this case the theme is about ‘moving on’. Eannelli excels at balancing the instrumental tracks so they compliment the feelings played out in the lyrics. Blending excellent lyrics with the right musical arrangement is kind of like alchemy, only in this case, it really does make ‘gold’. The string flourishes throughout Go With Me support the melody without overpowering it.
Track two, Willow, is a great example of Peggy’s C&W leanings. From the ‘clip-clop’ rimshots to the crying steel guitar, it is a track that would be at home on any roadhouse jukebox. And somehow find a way to carry on may not be about the plight of folks in the pandemic era, but it is another ‘hopeful lyric’ Peggy shares with us all in our time of need.
Thousand Reasons sways with all the charm of a Jimmy Buffet song filtered through Fleetwood Mac. The swirling background vocals don’t exactly sound like Stevie Nicks but I could see her singing this song. The finger picking guitar break connects the fore and aft sections of the song perfectly. If we keep the Fleetwood Mac reference line going, the guitar bridge does indeed remind me of Linday Buckingham’s style. Dare I say the claves add a country-pop-calypso feel in this wonderfully arranged tune?
The first of the previously released tracks, Guardian Angel, lifted my spirits immediately when I heard it at first release in early 2021. The song moves from the feeling of floating in the first segment to a driving pulse of drums, guitar, and bass that drives the song from the 1:22 mark to the end of the song. So Guardian Angel stay with me with please, don’t leave me this time pretty much sums up how we all felt in the middle of the pre-vaccination phase of the pandemic. Peggy James has the angelic pipes to carry this song and make the listener feel it. Earwig alert: I find myself humming this for days everytime I listen to Guardian Angel.
The first single released in the fall of 2020 was Hard Times. In the first review I said it was the perfect summary of the general mood being created by the pre-presidential election rancor mixed in with the on-going COVID troubles. If we hold on tight, from sea to shining sea, we’ll find a way to get back to our sanity are still words to live by. The guitar fills weaving in and out of this arrangement really bind things together, especially the lower string passages leading to the next verse. Having played with a true country picker in years past, these riffs are the sound Jerry Monk used to coax from his Gretch Country Gentleman. By name checking 911, Peggy really does put the focus on how serious things were in 2020. This was one of the first songs to come out of the pandemic that made me feel we had ample reasons to feel optimistic about the future.
In Best in Me, Peggy sings about ‘twists, turns, and regrets’ and about ‘learning a thing or two along the way’. She sings, there is No harm at all in looking back, and it sounds like musical therapy to me. The subtle echo effect employed on the guitar, drums, and vocals gives Best in Me a big, but not boomy, sound. If any song could conjure up the warm feelings one remembers thinking about the good parts of past relationships, this would be the one.
Speaking of subtle, track 7, So Subtle, is a gentle rocker with a nice rhythm. Taylor Swift could cover this tune, but I doubt she could keep the tight focus Peggy and Jim employ to keep it moving along. Peggy James could teach young singers like Swift a thing or two about getting the story out without the patchwork feel some seem to fall into when recording their songs. It is all about lyrical flow and James should be conducting a Master’s class in this art form.
The third song released before the full album was Joan of Arc and by the time I heard it, I was convinced that Peggy should hang out her shingle and perform musical therapy sessions for anyone feeling beat down by the events of 2020 and 2021. Joan of Arc, where are you now, can’t you come back and show us how to be strong and true and proud. Yes, more words to live by and a stellar arrangement.
Indoor Cat has a spooky vibe that made me think of our big black cat, Mr B. The fiddle accents give it an ‘Indian’ feel which made me listen closer to see if they snuck in tabla drums and sitar into the mix. Living on the shores of Lake Superior, I could relate to the nautical and weather themes used here. A moody song but not ‘moody as in depressing’ – Peggy has a knack for making the listener ‘feel’ her stories. Mr B would approve of this lovely arrangement.
Track ten brings back the ‘clip-clop’ country feel for Crossroad Moment. Like most of Peggy’s songs, this tune could be carried by acoustic guitar and voice alone, but the countrified guitar licks, moving bass line, strings, and soft drums elevate the song to a higher level.
The album’s final track, The Parade gave this old marching band drummer an urge to high step around the room. Okay, it isn’t exactly a march, but the feel is definitely there. Now I stand on the sidelines and watch it all go by, I find it hard to be part of the cavalcade and The Parade is over echoed in my head for a long time after the song faded out. Using The Parade as a vehicle to ponder the passing of life gives it a light feel, but the feeling of humanity here runs deep.
Peggy James is a wordsmith with few equals. This is not just a good album that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic era – it is the best album I have heard in years. I love watching The Joy of Painting on PBS because Bob Ross had the ability to give his paintings depth with each layer he added. Peggy, Jim, and Gary do the equivalent with this recording. The layers of instruments, effects, and voices give each track a tremendous amount of depth. Mind you, I have only listened to the entire album a few times at this point. I am looking forward to giving it more ear time so I can pick up more of the intricate parts they weave into the mix. It is hard to get tired of a record when one hears something new with each listen. It will take even more time for me to appreciate the depth of the words. With each pass, Peggy’s songs make me feel better about the world. What a wonderful gift to share with us.
Joe Bonamassa says he could have called Time Clocks the ‘New York’ album or perhaps his ‘Return to New York’ album. In the liner notes for this 2021 release, he describes living in the city while recording his 2003 covers record, Blues Deluxe: “I was hungry. Literally and figuratively. The music business is tough, very tough. Especially back in those days when major labels pulled all the strings and in my case, all the punches. I subsisted on a basic diet of peanut butter and jelly and ramen noodles, purchased at the bodega on the corner of 83rd and Columbus Avenue. Once a week, I would buy a ‘Win for Life’ lottery ticket. ‘Literally my ticket out of this hideous business,’ I thought to myself at the time. My love for the guitar and music was just too strong to give up. Cut to 2019 and I find myself back in New York and inspired by the city again. My living conditions had changed dramatically in the subsequent 20 years but the energy that makes New York City great still remained.”
The ‘changes in his living conditions’ Bonamassa described were mostly self driven. In 2002, Joe had a couple of releases under his belt but he was not setting the world on fire. He and Roy Weisman, his manager, decided to take control of his career by forming J&R Adventures. Having already been dropped by Sony and with no offers pending from other labels, they decided to finance the next album on their own. Their $10,000 investment would produce the aforementioned Blues Deluxe LP. It made enough noise in the market to give them the confidence needed to take control of everything Bonamassa. Performance wise, J&R employed a film industry concept called ‘fourth-walling’ where they would rent a performance space which allowed them to retain the ticket receipts. Relentlessly touring with marketing, publicity, and promotion all controlled in-house by J&R, they had expanded this fourth-walling idea from a two show experiment in 2008 to a 100 percent world-wide business plan. Even as the traditional music industry crumbled in the era of streaming (and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic), J&R Adventures has been able to profit by employing a team of twenty people whose only client is Joe Bonamassa. It has proven to be a financial boon for all involved.
Some say there are just too many Bonamassa records on the market at one time, but his willingness to bet on himself and the variety of projects he pursues is a direct result of the J&R business plan. I can not think of another artist who has put as many live albums on the market in the last twenty years (18 if you are counting), but every one of them has a different hook to attract album buyers. Be it a Muddy Waters / Howlin’ Wolf tribute show (called Muddy Wolf) or a nod to Joe’s influences (British Blues Explosion), Bonamassa covers a lot of musical territory. Space here does not allow a complete discography, but a small sampling includes live disks recorded at Royal Albert Hall, Red Rocks Amphitheater, The Greek Theater, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the fabled Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Add to the list 15 studio albums and 15 video albums and one can certainly see that no moss grows on this rolling Joe. Prior to the release of Time Clocks, Bonamassa’s four most recent studio albums include A Different Shade of Blue, Blues of Desperation, Redemption, and Royal Tea.
One of the key ingredients in all of these successful albums is the collaboration between Bonamassa and producer Kevin Shirley, owner of Caveman Productions in Los Angeles. A South African by birth, Shirley began getting rave reviews for his work behind the board after relocating to Australia. He first met Joe after seeing him play at a club in Chicago. Backstage Kevin gave him the advice he needed to hear: “Joe, you’re a wonderful player, but unless you’re willing to trust me and go outside the box, there isn’t much I can do for you.” Bonamassa called him a week later, said, “All right, I trust you. Let’s do it.” Working with Shirley on a regular basis since 2008’s Live from Nowhere in Particular, they have been doing annual recording projects ever since and not all are Joe B solo projects. His collaborations with Beth Hart and Glenn Hughes (Black Country Communion) have also been steered by Shirley.
All of this background brings us back to February 2021 as Bonamassa recalls, “We found ourselves at Germano Studios cutting music as a trio (but not trio music) and having to invent ways of making records when your lifelong producer is stuck in Australia due to travel restrictions. Kevin Shirley came up with a way of linking continents and consoles to where we had literally zero-latency. Add Steve Mackey and Anton Fig to the mix, a few masks and curse words and we have the ‘New York Record’ aka “Time Clocks.”
If you have never heard a Joe Bonamassa record, this is a great place to start. It is a diverse offering of solid guitar pop and blues without being just one or the other. The themes and arrangements are strong. The melodic sense will appeal to the blues purists and to those who prefer guitar driven rock. If one is familiar with Joe’s past work, be prepared to hear ‘familiar Joe stuff’ but a ‘brand new Bonamassa’ at the same time. You do not have to be a guitar player to appreciate this record, but either way, I am betting everyone who buys it will spin it more than a couple of times.
Remember those magazine polls where they ask people to list the one (or two or dozen) albums they would want to have if they were shipwrecked on an island? With more than sixty years of listening under my belt, I can tell you the first two on my list would be The Parade and Time Clocks. We will be spinning both records along with other albums by both Peggy James and Joe Bonamassa throughout December and on into the new year.
Top Piece Video: Hard Times – the first of the trio of singles Peggy James released before The Parade came out.