Some artists wear their influences on their sleeves and others keep them closer to their heart. So it was surprising to learn that blues rocker Joe Bonamassa is a huge Danny Gatton fan and pays tribute to him on Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell, an instrumental album evoking Gatton’s singular mix of blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, plus any other lick from any genre that would work in service to a song.
Gatton lived up to his moniker as the world’s greatest unknown guitarist. Despite talent to spare, he never won anything close to mainstream acclaim. Eventually, his depression caused him to take his own life in 1994 before he would even reach 50. It was a sad end to a beautiful artist. While there’s musical overlap between Gatton and Bonamassa, Bonamassa’s work tends to be a little more in either the blues, rock, or blues rock vein, while Gatton pulled from everywhere, often in the course of a single solo. Bonamassa hasn’t explicitly integrated Gatton’s sound into his own playing, but the two had a personal friendship going back to Bonamassa’s days as a child prodigy. And if you think about it for a minute, even absent their knowing each other, it’s hard to think of too many guitarists who heard Gatton and didn’t try to, or wish they could, steal some of his riffs. And that’s the charm of Easy to Buy: a talented fan pretending he’s a beloved artist, the irony being that thousands probably do the same with Bonamassa and his music.
Interestingly, if you listened to these tracks blind, you might not pick up it’s Bonamassa. While there are some blues-oriented tracks, there’s also lots of jazz. “Fun House,” a Danny Gatton tune, becomes big band, with lots of organ, courtesy of keyboardist Reese Wynans, now touring with Bonamassa but perhaps best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bonamassa’s solo is bluesy, but with plenty of country thrown in. It’s a smart tribute to Gatton’s own influences.
“Ha So” is a problematic Jimmy Bryant cover which features the stereotypical East Asian riff, used in the West to crudely indicate Asian music or locations. The riff and song title feel incredibly dated, but if you’re able to get past that, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, featuring out-of-this world chicken picking guitar from John Jorgenson of The Hellecasters, an instrumental band that, like Gatton, could also seamless fuse disparate American musical styles into a single song.
Bonamassa pushes himself stylistically across the entire album, but there are a few tracks more in his wheelhouse. “Polk Salad Annie” is a Tony Joe White go-go tune where Bonamassa uses the blues to slalom through poles of harmonica, organ, horns, and even background vocals. “Blue Nocturne,” a surprisingly guitar-heavy tune considering it was written by saxophonist King Curtis, is delicate, with Bonamassa using jazz flurries to soften the edges of his blues runs.
Tribute albums are funny things. While the name implies some sort of paying of respect to an artist, often they’re just a point of departure. The artist paying tribute might change things up so that the songs are about the current performer rather than the one supposedly being honored. Easy To Buy, Hard To Sell is a true tribute, though. Bonamassa and his band put their own twist on these tracks, but for the most part, it feels like they’re trying to direct fans back to Gatton and the other artists featured on the album. It would have been very easy for Bonamassa to just do his own thing over some lightly modified tracks. But instead, he chose to do it the right way, showing his fans everything magical about his own influences. It’s impressive, selfless, and a true tribute.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Fun House
– Polk Salad Annie
– Ha So
The Big Hit
– Ha So
Review by Steven Ovadia