For those who have not yet come across blues singer Deborah Bonham, it is fair to say that she belongs to rock royalty. Little sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, arguably the most famous rock drummer in the world in his time, she is also the auntie of Jason Bonham, John’s son and a top drummer himself, who hobnobs with the likes of Joe Bonamassa and Glenn Hughes in the mighty Black Country Communion. But Deborah’s claim to a princess’ tiara is not just based on her royal kinship; she is herself a formidable singer, with a great voice and a keen grasp of blues phrasing. She has been leading her own Deborah Bonham Band for nigh on 30 years, for 20 of which she has been married to her guitarist Peter Bullick. For this reason amongst others, the band’s name is now Bonham-Bullick, and this is their first, self-titled album, with a cool dreamcatcher logo designed by Bullick himself.
First thing to say is that I had listened to the whole album before I read the notes and realised that it’s a covers album. Than in itself says something about the song selection; these are not the hackneyed standard blues classics we might expect, but a carefully-selected and curated hour-long set that the band felt would push the boundaries a little. It starts with an ambient treatment of See You Again, starting with Pink Floyd-style lead guitar work, then clear-toned arpeggios and a slow tom rhythm. The vocals come in over the top and the layers slowly build, with various organ sounds and some massed backing vocals. The rhythm changes at the four-minute mark as the guitar solo comes in, the whole number lasting for seven minutes. That moody, smoky vibe sets the scene for the whole album; the second track I Had A Dream is more traditionally bluesy perhaps, but follows basically the same theme.
Albert King’s Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me raises the beats-per-minute rate somewhat, a mid-tempo pub blues rocker with heavier guitar work and some twinkling boogie piano in the background, but for the most part the band stick to an ambience which conjures up moody lighting and clouds of dry ice. Bonham herself gets to exercise her vocal chords on I Don’t Know Why, which features some subtle bongos and acoustic guitar work; Bullick contributes some resonator slide on Sam Cooke’s Trouble Blues. Their version of Stephen Stills’ Sit Yourself Down comes across as a Christine McVie-era Fleetwood Mac light rock number, especially with the massed background vocals, but one of the highlights of the set for me is I’ll Get Along, a groovy, funky blues rock with Hammond backing, driven along with a tambourine and an imaginative range of guitar sounds. The other highlight is the second-to-last track It Ain’t Easy, a rocking southern blues with a mandolin sparking away in the background, dubbed on by Bullick in addition to the guitars. It’s clear that we are dealing with a classy band here; Bonham’s voice varies between deep soul and raw-edged highs, with some great singing on the late evening, maudlin Patty Griffin blues When It Don’t Come Easy, in which the band rise and fall in perfect unison like ducks floating on a rippling pond. For this reviewer though, the identifying characteristic on this album is drummer Marco Giovino’s thoughtful and imaginative percussion on half of the set, big on the toms and the feel; Richard Newman plays the other half with comparable skill and a bit more drive. A number of keyboard players join in the fun, usually two per song, which adds plenty of texture; pedal steel player B. J. Cole guest stars on the gospel-themed When This World Comes To An End, and also on Chris Wilson’s The Changeling, which finishes this collection.
Considering that Bonham usually writes her own songs, it’s a step outside of her and Bullick’s comfort zone to play a set of covers, mixing ancient and the modern songs, but pulling them together into a coherent and consistent set; Bonham also takes sole production duties on this one for the first time. Most of the songs will not be overly familiar to most listeners in any case, but the overall feel is more overtly blues-based than on Bonham’s self-penned albums. It’s not a hard-driving, rocking set by any means, but it’s heavy on the mood and the ambience, and the band is just so damn good, notwithstanding that the members change frequently from song to song. Evidently, royalty can afford the best.