Joe Bonamassa | Never an Original Thought

prof_joe-b_sm.jpgBonamassa’s relationship with the King of the Blues has been a continuous driving force in his career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was October 10, 2007, when I first saw Joe Bonamassa live. I had just gotten back from Lawrence, Kan., that morning, having driven there to see another show the night before. I was exhausted from driving and coming down off of a high that only a stellar live show can give you, and was on the fence about going to The Pageant that night, certain that my experience the night before couldn’t be topped. Over the past few years, I have increasingly become a big fan of blues music and I had heard a little here and there about Joe Bonamassa, how he had been a child prodigy on the guitar, first opening up for BB King at age 13. I was hopeful enough to get my spirits picked back up. Bonamassa, who has been named "Best Blues Guitarist" by Guitar Player magazine for the past two years, did just that, and then some, no doubt about it. Shamefully, I hadn’t dug too far into Bonamassa’s music before that day—well, before that show, really. As I’m sure is the case with all newcomers to his music, however, I became an instant fan. In the presence of such raw and energetic talent, it was impossible not to. His guitar technique—heavily influenced by the blues, of course, but also sneaking in heavy rock and jazz elements—is relentless, fluid and passionate, and as producer Phil Ramone has said of his live shows, "I saw him take an audience apart."

A mere 31 years old, Bonamassa, born in Utica, N.Y., on May 8, 1977 (coincidently blues great Robert Johnson’s birthday), has a music career that already spans 20 years. At age four he decided he wanted to play guitar after listening to the Stevie Ray Vaughn album that his father had brought home. "I was totally blown away by the sounds that I was hearing and I was like, that’s what I want to do," he said. By age six, his father Len, a guitar dealer at the time, recalls, "He was playing Stevie Ray Vaughn songs almost note for note." BB King, impressed with Bonamassa’s potential after hearing him play in small New York clubs, started giving him opportunities to come onstage to jam starting at age 13.

Bonamassa’s relationship with the King of the Blues has been a continuous driving force in his career. From ages14-18, he played guitar in the band Bloodlines, which included sons of famous musicians such as Erin Davis, son of jazz great Miles Davis; Waylon Krieger, son of The Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger; and Barry Oakley Jr., whose father was one of the founders of the Allman Brothers. It wasn’t until after he decided to take the solo route at 18 that he started singing, a wise even if natural decision, his voice having been compared to Joe Cocker and Greg Allman. He released his debut solo CD, A New Day Yesterday, in 2000, belting out a textured, soulful voice paired with insane guitar skill in numerous successive albums ever since. A New Day Yesterday, produced by Tom Dowd (Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton), received critical acclaim and set the bar high for Bonamassa’s career, one that has since been rich with accolades, including becoming the first two-time winner of the BluesWax "Artist of the Year" in 2005 and 2006. His dedicated allegiance of fans keeps him going through an extensive touring schedule which he plans to continue just as fervently for his newest release, The Ballad of John Henry, due out in February. He was gracious enough to spend some time with me on the phone.

 

prof_joe-b.jpgCongratulations on being named Best Blues Guitarist by Guitar Player magazine two years in a row.

Yeah, it’s just one of those things where all of a sudden I became the guitarist that no one’s heard about to the guitarist that everyone’s heard about, and I’m doing the exact same things I’ve been doing for 10 years. It’s great that now every body seems to be catching on and it’s nice to see it all come to fruition. I owe it all to the fans; to have an honest fan reaction is a really cool thing.

What do you attribute your success to?

I think it’s just the tireless touring and a little bit of retail politics; you just pound the pavement and plant seeds and all of a sudden things start to grow… If I had to retrace my steps and ask myself, "How did I do it?"… Well, we’re in Omaha now, and I’ve been to Omaha probably ten times in the past ten years, and each time there’s more and more people, so before you know it you’ve built a fan base one by one and you meet people.

With the energy and intensity that you play with, it’s hard not to get into your music, even if you’re just a mild fan of the blues.

You know, we’re not really a blues band. I’m in the entertainment business; my job is to entertain. I’m not [just] a guitar player; I’m not in the guitar business, I’m not in the blues business, I’m not in the record business; I’m in the entertainment business. And that’s what I think people lose sight of. At the end of the day, I’ll look out into my crowd and these people will not only be hip to the blues but they’re hip to the prog-rock and they’re hip to all the stuff that my dad was hip to and then showed to me.

Do you find yourself catching flak with the old-timers in the blues genre for not being traditional enough?

Of course. The blues business tends to fight over the same nickel, and I like to just forego the nickel and go for the dime. There’s always people who will say this, that and the other; at the end of the day, none of it will make me cry myself to sleep, or not believe that everything I’ve done over the past 10 years wasn’t exactly the right thing to do for me; for someone else, maybe not. I feel confident that I’ve made the right decisions, musically and in my career. I can’t masquerade as something that I’m not; it wouldn’t be honest to me or my fans. I’m just as God made me.

Well, it’s certainly not for a lack of effort. I don’t know how you have the energy to tour the way you do.

You know, I’m 31 years old and it’s not getting any easier…although I’ve lost over 50 pounds in the past year; I have more energy and I look physically like I did when I was 22. But it does catch up with you; 250 days a year is a lot. You travel all over the world and you never stop moving; it’s a lot of work.

I’m sure that type of schedule teaches you a thing or two about time management…

Time management is the key. I have six radio shows I do a week, five for Sirius and one I do for a station called Planet Rock in the U.K., so I’m constantly programming and recording radio shows on my computer. It’s knowing your limitations and maintaining your commitments.

I listen to your "Daily Cup of Joe" [on Sirius].

Do I talk too fast? People say I talk too fast.

I don’t think so. I heard you talking today about Albert Collins playing the telecaster, and I’ve heard you talk about the multitudes of guitars that you own. Do you have a favorite right now?

My favorite guitar, and I hate to sound selfish, but my favorite is my custom Gibson signature Joe Bonamassa Les Paul. I don’t plan on breeding or having children, so that’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a child.

With the band Bloodlines and with your band now, you obviously have had the opportunity to play with some talented musicians. Is there anyone that you haven’t played with that you’d like to? I know you’ve played with Derek Trucks.

I shared the stage with Derek a bunch of times when we were kids. The weird part about our job is that we all know each other but we never see each other. There’s never an instance where Derek and Susan are in the same town at the same time with me; it’s the same audience, so we never get the opportunity to really see each other. I like to jam with every body, but the biggest one would be Clapton. He was the guy who got it started for me. He’s my favorite singer, songwriter and guitar player.

Are there any upcoming festivals at which you foresee being able to pursue any collaborative efforts?

Festival days are tough; we just did Austin City Limits. I gotta be honest with you, my mentality on festivals is that we’re all friends before and we’re all friends after, but when it’s time to work I’m coming after everybody. I’m a pretty competitive person. If you beat me that’s great, but I’ll take my lumps and come back at you. I don’t really sit around and chat onstage with the other bands because I try not to lose sight of my job, which is to make fans; my mental state is always that I’m going to go onstage and I’m going to kill. I think that’s what makes me good at my job and what makes a good festival is that when people get up there they mean business; it makes for a better performance. Fans come out to the shows and they deserve it, especially now with the economy. Money is tight and tickets are expensive. You can’t just go through the motions; it will go away real fast.

It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of bands with limited talent booking big shows off the bat, when markets like the jam and blues genres are constantly fighting to maintain exposure.

There’s always have’s and have not’s to everything. You can’t fault bands who come out of the gate and have a big following right away, but you can fault them for taking it for granted and expecting it to just be there the next year. I’m fortunate enough to be a part of the young crew, along with Derek Trucks, who can go out and tour the big venues and do fairly well, and that’s not the case for everybody — and we certainly don’t take that for granted. We’re very lucky, but we’ve crossed into a different genre of music. We’re drawing fans not just from the blues. There’s always going to be x amount of blues fans, but I don’t know anybody who would just exclusively go to one type of concert, whether it be reggae, blues, jazz, rock; people go to all kinds of concerts. At Austin City Limits, we had 8,000 people in front of us, but they weren’t only there to see us, they were there to see bands like the Foo Fighters, Gnarls Barkley and The Raconteurs. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; music is music, and good music from any genre will go from there. The other thing is if you just sit on your high horse and say, "I’m just going to play traditional blues like they did in 1929," well, that’s all good and fine but you’re not going fill up places, and it’s going to be a tough road for you.

Do you find your use of different genres a natural evolution due to your experience with music?

I just think that I have an undiagnosed case of ADD and I get bored with things quickly — you know, after I play 10 blues songs I want to play something different. I can’t just play the same type of music because I would get bored; consequently, the audience would get bored and nobody wins.

Has that always been the case with your taste? You talk about Steve Miller and Rod Stewart being influences just as much as John Lee Hooker and B.B., of course.

And Eric Clapton and Paul Rogers and Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, and a band called Catfish, early Genesis and Yes… All that stuff goes into making the hodgepodge that I am, and that’s what we all are as musicians: We’re just a product of our influences; I’m just a conduit for my influences to come out. You’ll hear 50 different people in my singing and my playing that I’ve stolen from. I don’t believe I’ve ever had an original thought in my entire life; many good interpreted thoughts, but never a great original thought. That’s just how I approach it; if people like it, great. We’re always going to keep working at it and making it better.

Regarding B.B. King, what’s it like being such a young kid and having someone of that musical stature take an interest in you?

When I was a kid I just had the perspective of, you know, this is just what happens to everyone, which of course it doesn’t. I’ve just been extremely fortunate, and B.B. King is the reason we’re having this conversation right now, he’s the reason I’m in the music business. It’ll be 20 years in the music business next year and I’m only 31. Everybody owes their success to someone, and I owe it to my manager, my dad and to B.B. King. And to Kevin Shirley, who has produced my last three albums. These are the people who are responsible for me being there while I was growing as an artist and, you know, how do you really quantify that? You owe them your whole life.

Have you ever viewed your relationship with King as intimidating, or just mostly encouraging?

I find it honoring and I find myself feeling very privileged all the time. I’m honored by the friends that I have and by the people who have gone out of their way to help me even when I didn’t want to help myself.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary bands and musicians out there right now?

I like Jack White and the Raconteurs and the White Stripes, modernizing the blues… I like what the Black Keys are doing with the blues, anyone who says, "You know what, to hell with this, I’m doing something different." My tastes range from Bruce Hornsby to Peter Gabriel to System of a Down; I have an eclectic taste in music.

How about the North Mississippi All-Stars?

Of course. They’re really good buds and a hell of a band and they’re doing something very cool and unique with the blues, using the hip-hop element with the Mississippi swamp sound. That’s what the genre needs, these young kids getting involved. You can’t just keep playing for the same fan base that was there in 1975; they’re just not going to come out. | Joanna Kleine

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