Monday, January 19, 2015

Joe Bonamassa: A Different Kind of Bluesman

photo by Rhonda Pierce
At 37, Joe Bonamassa has already spent a quarter century establishing him as one of the greatest blues guitarists America has ever produced. With his new album, Different Shades of Blue, Bonamassa is riding a seemingly never-ending wave of success, beginning with his discovery at the tender age of 12 by the legendary B.B. King. Different Shades of Blue features all original material, which Bonamassa co-wrote with master songwriters Jonathan Cain (Journey), James House (Diamond Rio, Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride), Jerry Flowers (Keith Urban), Gary Nicholson (Toby Keith), and Jeffrey Steele (Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw). Renowned producer Kevin Shirley (Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin) has been with Bonamassa for the artist’s past fifteen projects. Of this latest collaboration, Shirley says, “It’s definitely my favorite Joe Bonamassa record to date. It’s an album that deserves to be listened to in its entirety. Luckily Joe’s fan base really seems to appreciate a body of work and not just songs.”


Keeping a relentless touring schedule, Bonamassa continues to expand his fan base, gaining the respect and admiration of new listeners around the world. His charting record speaks for itself: Bonamassa now has more Number One Billboard Blues albums than any other artist. Bonamassa’s success is all the more remarkable because he has achieved it on his own terms, maintaining his devotion to the music and his fans while preserving his integrity as an artist.  


Not only does Joe Bonamassa remain committed to the music which has inspired him since childhood, he also focuses his efforts toward ensuring that young people continue to have music programs available to them in school. His Keeping the Blues Alive organization has already helped more than 20,000 students across the country. A music festival cruise planned for February is the next in a series of fundraisers for the program.


Currently in rehearsal for his much-anticipated performances at Radio City Music Hall on January 23rd and 24th, the bluesman graciously took the time to answer a handful of questions about his extraordinary journey.


Roy Abrams: You've been described as "the hardest working man in show business." What drives you?


Joe Bonamassa: You get a lot of motivation when someone tells you that you can’t do what you want to do. I was always a hard worker but the moment we got dropped from Sony, Roy Weisman (my manager and business partner) and I decided we were going to do this ourselves. That really lit a fire and we’ve been determined to prove the naysayers wrong ever since. I’ve also never had a plan B. I started playing professionally 25 years ago and it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. And I always say I’m one of the luckiest cats in the world because I get to do what I love for a living. 

RA: You've stated your devotion to the genre by declaring that your desire is not to outplay Clapton or Hendrix but to keep organic music alive. Can you elaborate on this? Also, how do you characterize the current musical landscape from a creative standpoint?


JB: I really want to make sure organic music—as in made by human beings—has a voice. I’m starting to see too many computer screens on stage. I don’t ever plan to make music like that. I think organic music, roots music is important and I want to do my part to make sure it sticks around. It’s one of the reasons I recently pared down my rig. I now play exclusively on stage with vintage amps and guitars—all from 1965 or earlier. I’m plugging straight in and playing which is a really organic and honest way of playing. No bells and whistles.  

RA: In another interview, you talked about your perception that artists such as the Black Keys and Jack White have succeeded in connecting with a younger audience while you feel that you have failed to do so. Your perspective on this differs from reality if one examines the demographics of your audience. How do you account for the apparent disconnect?


JB: I’m a family friendly kind of guy. Most of my audience is 40+ and often they’ll bring their kids. My music seems to resonate most with that group. I think the Black Keys and Jack White and Gary Clark, Jr. have really hit a chord with kids in their 20s and 30s. I just love that all these people, whether they realize it or not, are listening to and loving the blues. I think the genre is actually in a really healthy place right now.

RA: For the new album, can you talk about the marathon songwriting sessions in Nashville, what each co-writer brought to the table, and how these partnerships arose?

JB: For this album I needed to do something different and Kevin Shirley (my producer) suggested I write all original songs. It’s something I hadn’t done before and something we both knew the fans would love. I’m not a songwriter. I can write but I needed people who know about song craft and song structure. So Kevin suggested we go to Nashville and hook up with writers. I already knew Jerry Flowers, I knew Jonathan Cain, I’d met James House; I didn’t know Gary Nicholson or Jeffrey Steele before meeting them in Nashville. There’s a real artistry and craft to songwriting—knowing when to add a chorus or a bridge—and all these guys are master songwriters. And they’re all deep lyricists, great with words and really soulful writers. I learned so much from each of them.

RA: Revisiting the early days of your career, are there any memorable Utica stories where you realized that life was irrevocably changing for you?


JB: When I was 12, I had my own band called Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa. We played clubs in upstate New York—around Utica and Buffalo and in some cities in Pennsylvania. We played on the weekends because I had school during the week and my mom didn’t want me out late on a school night. I think the moment I was asked to open for B.B. King in 1989 was the moment I felt things start to change. We played to about 5,000 people—by far the biggest crowd I’d played to in my life at that point. I played about 20 shows with B.B. that summer and, when I looked at him and watched him play, I knew that was exactly how I wanted to live my life. 

photo by Rhonda Pierce

RA: Can you discuss the influences that
Jethro Tull and Genesis had upon you in the respective forms of Tull guitarists Martin Barre and Mick Abrahams and Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett?

JB: Martin and Mick were big influences for me. I really dug Martin Barre’s playing. Jethro Tull is one of my favorite bands and Stand Up is one of my favorite blues albums of all time. It was Tull’s first record after Mick Abrahams departed. Mick's a fantastic guitarist. I loved his band Blodwyn Pig’s 1970 record Getting to This. Steve Hackett, he’s an amazing guitarist, with Genesis and solo. I often like to practice things that are outside my normal sphere of playing whether that’s picking up a mandolin or practicing prog rock. We used to play Genesis’ “Los Endos” from the record A Trick of the Tail during shows.

RA: You’ve said that the English interpretation of the blues hit you a lot better than traditional blues. How so? (It’s an interesting statement that recalls how the early Beatles’ interpretations of American R&R, R&B, and C&W songs hit American audiences “better” than the original versions.)


JB: When I first started buying records as a kid, I liked the guys that rocked louder, heavier and faster. And that came in the form of the English and Irish cats like Eric Clapton, the Jeff Beck Group, Free, Led Zeppelin, Gary Moore, and Rory Gallagher. I was enthralled with this interpretation of the blues and I subsequently went back and discovered the masters. But ultimately it boiled down to that was the kind of music I really wanted to play.

RA: As an educator, I am most impressed with your commitment to young people through your work with the Keeping the Blues Alive program.  Can you talk about what lead to its formation, its goals and activities, and the upcoming Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise?

JB: I wanted to give back and a big thing I’ve been seeing lately is that arts programs in schools across the country are getting cut. The schools don’t have the money they need for books or classes and it’s the first thing to go. We donate instruments and help fund programs and scholarships for students and teachers. Or we get companies like Ernie Ball to send guitar strings. We do this for schools across the country, in every state. Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea is our first cruise and it will benefit KTBA. We have some great bands coming with us like John Hiatt, Robben Ford, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Ana Popovic, Joanne Shaw Taylor, and others. It’s our first cruise and hopefully not our last!


RA: Your approach to your career, from your preferred recording techniques to the indie label/management company you've been with for 25 years, is very refreshing and has proven that one doesn't have to “play the game” by industry “rules” and expectations in order to establish a successful, long-term career in this field. How do you view the music industry and your relationship to it?


JB: Necessity is the mother of invention. The inspiration came with Sony calling to say they were going to drop us from the label. It was at that moment that all of this started. We (Roy and I) just could not leave everything we’d worked so hard for and this vision and our goal to die. And we couldn’t trust it in the hands of other people either. So we started J&R Adventures—our own label, management, booking, and promotion business—and what we figured out quickly is that when you own it, you can be very nimble and make decisions much quicker and much easier than under a slow-moving behemoth record label. Having that freedom and flexibility allows you to make decisions that are good for you as an artist and as a business. 


At this point, the music industry is an antiquated business model. All the major labels are looking for is the next big pop act. They don’t give young musicians a chance. But the message I want to send to those young musicians is that you can do it on your own. Record a song; put it on social media, book a show. Get your music out there and you got your own business! You own it and you’re in control. Musicians just have to put the music out there in any way we can. And the Internet is a big part of that.

RA: Given your ever-growing list of accomplishments, with all releases since 2006 reaching #1 on the Billboard Blues chart (
13 #1 Blues albums to date!), to the new album debuting at #8 on Billboard's Top 200, from your perspective, how do you describe it all?

JB: It’s been amazing. I’m just a blues boy from upstate New York who loves to play the guitar. I never imagined the music would be embraced like it has and I feel truly blessed to have all the unbelievable support from the fans who make all this possible. With each record or ticket they buy, they help us fund the next album. We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them.  

photo by Rick Gould

RA: How is 2015 shaping up as far as touring plans are concerned?

JB: We’ll be touring amphitheaters in the U.S. this summer with a new tribute show! I can’t say yet what we’re tributing but just think of three crowns. (That would be Albert, B.B., and Freddie King – RA)

RA: Final question: Any thoughts on the upcoming Radio City Music Hall shows?

JB: I’m very honored to be playing Radio City Music Hall and I think it’s one of the greatest honors any performer could ever achieve. I want to play these shows like I would any other show. Give the fans 110% and have people walking out and saying it was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen. That’s always my goal.

© 2015 by Roy Abrams




No comments:

Post a Comment