The Sleep Eazys featuring Joe Bonamassa
Easy to Buy, Hard To Sell
One of the things I admire the most about Joe Bonamassa is his continuous ability to reinvent himself. With his latest project, The Sleep Eazys, Bonamassa pays homage to his good friend and one of his biggest influences, the late Danny Gatton. My time hanging out and jamming with Danny as a child shaped my playing and musical pathway more than just about anyone. He taught me that the world of music was stereo not mono like I had previously imagined. There was other music besides blues. Wow! What a revelation! I was 11 years old and I knew I needed to get to work. He was my conduit to Jazz, Rockabilly, real country music (remember when it was about something more than riding with girls in pickup trucks and binge drinking?), Django Reinhardt, and most of all a deeper understanding of what the guitar itself was capable of.
The self-produced, nine-song instrumental cover album had been lurking in the recesses of Bonamassa’s mind for some time, but it was only recently that he felt he was ready to accept the challenge. He also honors many of his favorite musicians as well and some of his choices may come as a surprise. These eclectic selections receive fresh Bonamaster makeovers and hopefully introduce a new generation to some timeless classics. Bonamassa is backed by members of his touring band including Michael Rhodes (bass), Anton Fig (drums), Reese Wynans (keys), Lee Thornburg (trumpet), Paulie Cerra (saxophone), and Jade MacRae/Juanita Tippins (backing vocals) plus multi-instrumentalist, John Jorgenson (guitar/saxophone) and Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie, Jeff Beck) on harmonica.
Opening the record with a jazz-infused, big band take on Gatton’s “Fun House,” the combination of Wynans’ wailing keys, Jorgenson’s ultra smooth sax solo and Bonamassa’s tasty licks are a winning combination. Gatton’s funkier original boasted a blues edge and a distinctive “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” (Dickey Betts/Allman Brothers Band) guitar riff, but Bonamassa doesn’t include that here.
Influenced by the Hank Garland version (as opposed to the better known Miles Davis gem) of “Move” (Denzil Best/Paul Walsh), the song features keys, guitar and drum solos as well as prominent vibraphone.
Link Wray’s surfer rock romper, “Ace of Spades” gets a slicker, more polished update than the stripped-down original with some silky slide from Bonamassa. Wynans proves yet again why he is a keys master. As a side note, Fig was Wray’s drummer in the ’80s.
“Ha So” from country guitarist Jimmy Bryant, a Django Reinhardt disciple, also gets a modern surfer spin as Jorgenson and Bonamassa each take a guitar solo, respectively.
One of the real highlights is “Hawaiian Eye” (Mack David/Jerry Livingston), a cheesy early ’60s TV theme song that Bonamassa spices up into a fast-paced, guitar-driven stunner with great closing horns.
This never happened to the other fellow – “Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service),” John Barry’s sweeping instrumental that opens the 1969 James Bond film gets a modern makeover and as it progresses, it feels like it easily could fit into a Trans-Siberian Orchestra catalog. Jorgenson’s screaming guitar solo is brilliant.
Who doesn’t love a revved-up, rocked out instrumental interpretation of Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie,” especially when it includes blues harp from Jimmy Hall? Bonamassa reshapes the slower swamp rock original into a fast, fierce romper, peppered with horns, keys and backing notes from MacRae and Tippins.
Bonamassa has a true knack for sequencing. He rounds out the record with a one-two slow burner combo, “Blue Nocturne” (King Curtis) and “It Was A Very Good Year” (Ervin Drake). Both are simply stunning. While this album has an instrumental version of “It Was A Very Good Year” and the original was recorded by The Kingston Trio, it was Frank Sinatra who absolutely owned this song and clearly inspired Bonamassa. The Sinatra version also won two Grammys.
There’s nothing about this record that I don’t love. It’s more than just a bunch of covers. It’s a loving, respectful tribute to influential musicians who helped pave the way and shape the musical genius of Joe Bonamassa. It’s a joy from start to finish and it’s a record to play over and over again.