March , 2011
By David Huff
A Legend In The Making
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview
Joe Bonamassa smiles politely as he makes a concerted effort to individually thank an assembled group of some 70 well-wishers, who have convened around him this afternoon, to say hello. Ten years ago, this performer would have been thrilled just to have 70 people in the audience to see him perform. Tonight's sold-out show before some 3,000 ‘bona'-fide friends is a crowning achievement for this gifted musician. Not only has he built a solid fan base over this past decade through constant touring and yearly album releases, he's gained the utmost respect from his peers in the industry as well
The legend of Joe Bonamassa began when a then 12-year old prodigy was asked to open for blues legend B.B. King. After watching the seventh grader perform his guitar wizardry on stage, King told those around him he'd just seen a "one of a kind" musician. Those words of encouragement filtered back to the young virtuoso, who then turned his passion into a lifelong endeavor now in its 22nd year.
In late March 2011, the Utica, New York native will release his 12th blues rock record in thirteen years aptly titled Dust Bowl. Recorded by long time producer Kevin Shirley, the disc also features appearances by John Hiatt, Glenn Hughes and Vince Gill. After his current solo tour ends in early April, Bonamassa will return to his second project, the ‘70s inspired hard rock band the Black Country Communion, to record their sophomore project. Immediately after that, Joe heads to Australia for two weeks worth of solo shows before returning to the States to embark on a short two-month tour with his Black Country Communion band mates. Needless to say, Guitar Joe doesn't like down time.
JAM: I have witnessed some incredible things in the music industry over the many years I've been covering the business, and it takes a lot to surprise me. Your performance in Dallas and the enthusiastic response from the older, very appreciative crowd left my shaking my head after the show. Was that audience indicative of the kind of people that are attracted to your style of blues rock guitar playing?
Joe Bonamassa – Well, the audiences have been getting younger over the years, but in a sense, it's kind of a generational thing for me. I get parents and their kids, sometimes the grandparents as well, to come out and see me perform. The Dallas show was especially rewarding. We started out there ten years ago at a place called Trees, and to see it culminate before 3000 people at the Fair Park Music Hall, that was really special. The crowd was totally into it, and seriously, I think it's one of the best shows the band and I have ever played.
JAM: What I found interesting about you is this. There is no line between artist and fan where you are concerned. Many guitarists of your caliber would like to create this mystique around their persona, which means they are inaccessible to their fans. You on the other hand, have taken the opposite approach. Why?
At the end of the day, I'm just a guy with a guitar that has been very lucky over the years. As far as the mystique part of it goes, I am just very, very thankful for what I have. It doesn't bother me when people come up and say hello. I'm genuinely thrilled to meet everybody and hear what they have to say.
JAM: Jimi Hendrix is mentioned in reverent tones by his contemporaries as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan. The names of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are considered the Holy Trinity among guitar players. Your name is often mentioned among these luminaries in the press. Does establishing your position among this rock royalty cause you any problems?
Here's my take on the hype that's written about me. For every good thing you read about Joe Bonamassa, you can find five equally bad items written as well. The truth about me lies somewhere in the middle. I don't believe the protégé hype; never have. All I do is wake in the morning and say, "Hey, I'm going to try to do the best show I possibly can with my skills and energy level." I just go out on stage with the best intentions and give 110 percent of what I have every time. That to me is the only thing that matters. It really is. When journalists write about me and use the terms prodigy or legend in the same line, I don't like it. There are a select few people that deserve those words associated with their name, and I'm certainly not one of them.
JAM: Your ability to interpret and play several styles of music, I would think, could cause more problems than solve them. Is it possible for a successful guitar player to have an identity crisis?
My ability to play different styles is the reason I don't have any problems being who I am. There's the solo thing I have going for me as well as the band project with Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham and Derek Sheridian called Black Country Communion. With those guys, it's a golden opportunity for me to go out and explore the rock side of my personality in a real group setting. In a sense, I'm fortunate to have the ability to play various styles of music on the guitar, because it allows me to explore different avenues of my blues rock roots.
JAM: You have recorded your last two albums, Black Rock and Dust Bowl, in Greece. Do the physical surroundings you put yourself in influence the creativity levels within you?
Well, it certainly can't hurt. When you place yourself in different environments, the atmosphere around you certainly affects the creative process. Honestly, recording an album is actually a snapshot of you as a human being, and where you're at that particular crossroad of your life.
JAM: Does it ever amaze you that the manipulation of sound you create with the guitar can have so much impact on the human soul?
I don't know if amaze is the word to use because to me, it's just gratifying to see people respond to my work. Over the years, I've had songs connect with people in different ways, shapes and forms. We put on a two-hour show that covers all shades of my personality. My goal on stage is to hopefully cover a full spectrum of emotions for people to experience.
JAM: You grew up with a generation of kids thinking everything is free on the Internet, from movies to music. How do you deal with this type of thinking?
I don't look at the Internet as being a problem. If someone illegally downloads my album, then likes the music enough to purchase a ticket to my show, then I am happy. As far as I'm concerned, file sharing isn't some sort of evil entity. People in this industry are going to have to get their heads around the fact that eventually music will be given away, or at least be cheaper to obtain than it currently is today. Here's the thing. You can't illegally download a concert experience. You have to physically be there. That's why I put so much of myself into every show I do. I'm in the ticket selling business as much as I'm into promoting and selling my music.
JAM: That's an interesting realization you've come to. I've noticed over the last ten years bands really concentrating on the touring and merchandise aspects of their career. The music is still critically important, but going on the road has taken on an entirely different meaning in today's marketplace than it did a decade ago.
The Internet made the entire music industry – artists especially – reevaluate every aspect of their business. In fact, my management team has taken the record company out of the equation completely. We started our own label so we could make the records we wanted to make, not what others thought I should do. There aren't any corporate board meetings, just myself, my manager Roy Weisman, and longtime producer Kevin Shirley. That's the recording process Joe Bonamassa deals with. When it comes to marketing the product, we discuss the options available to us, and go with the best one that fits our needs.
JAM: The Internet has leveled the playing field as far as talent being heard today. Has that allowed an artist like yourself to find your voice, whether it's the guitar or singing, and hone that talent without fear you won't be heard?
Again, there's not really much to the master plan. The Internet has changed the business model of everybody involved with this industry. If you make music that is honest, people will respond to it. If you stick to that model while you're tinkering with the formula every time, then you never have to worry about over thinking the music or following the trends. That's what the pop world does – follow the trends – and that is way too scary for me to ever explore.
JAM: Then explain exactly what the Black Country Communion is all about. It has been called a retrospective look at the ‘70s by many critics?
We created excitement with a sound that was 35-40 years old. Each song on the record was like six or seven minutes long. I thought it was quite amusing when some journalists criticized the sound of the record for being dated. Guess what – that was the whole point of the project, to make it sound like it was made in 1972. We didn't get together to compete with the Arctic Monkeys or Maroon 5. If that was the case, I would rather become a deejay and get out all together. The B.C.C. project was successful because we took a refreshing new approach to a classic rock sound. The music was true to the time period. We weren't pretending to be anything but what we are – musicians.
JAM: Great guitarists in our society are defined by hit singles and the guitar solos that defined those songs. In the overall scheme of things, do you care about trivial things like that?
Here is what's important to Joe Bonamassa. I care about every show. I care about every record. I care about every concert-goer's experience. I care about my band and the crew. The minute you stop caring, and you put the autopilot button on, then you might as well hang your instrument up. That's when you're all about taking the money. When that happens, it means you've stopped being honest about yourself and your music. I have a simple rule I follow with every solo album I create. This could be the last one I ever do, so give it your all. Eventually, I will be right with that approach.
JAM: There comes a point in a musician's career, and I believe that moment is now upon Glenn Hughes and Jason Bonham, were success isn't defined in financial terms, but real artistic creativity. Did you sense that feeling as the songs for the B.C.C. project unfolded?
What I could sense when I got together with Derek, Jason and Glenn was that musically, we were all on the same page. We were all sort of simpatico as far as our natural instincts with the style of music we were playing. We had five days to make that record.
JAM: You took five days to create an album's worth of material?
That's right. It was five days of just reacting and playing off each other. We didn't have time to think. My producer, Kevin Shirley, was the ringleader of it all. He made sure it was going in the right direction and when the smoke cleared, he sorted through all the bits and made the record.
JAM: You four really did go back to the ‘70s mode of thinking when you created that album because basically, that's how all the bands did it back then.
I prefer to record that way. I am not a huge fan of being in the studio for a long time.
JAM: You said in several articles that you created a sub-genre of the blues.
Some people think the blues has to be played a certain way with certain chords, and has to sound like it was 50 or 60 years ago. My take was this. Maybe I could make it fun by adding certain influences into the music and redefine parts of the sound. To me, guys like Chris Whitley are the sub-genre people because they were just as much the blues as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
JAM: You made one of the most curious statements I've heard from an artist when talking about your reasons behind covering Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" and John Hiatt's "I Know a Place. You said, "It's all about a good lyric … a good lyrics saves all." Can you explain that to me in the context of the creative spark it lit up in you?
A good song with bad lyrics isn't great, but a great lyric backed by one chord is something really special. "Bird on a Wire" is a classic lyric. "I Know a Place" is a classic lyric. All we did was rearrange the music and put this wonderful poetry to a different set of chords. I thought it came out really great. I was really thrilled that John liked that version of his song. He liked it so much he ended up singing "Tennessee Plates" with me on the new album.
JAM: When you take on the task of rearranging an established song, are you careful to honor the original recording?
No. I don't feel any responsibility to honor it, because you can't top an original composition, no matter how you interpret the song. When I choose to cover a song, I look at what I can do with it in terms of my voice. Then I look at the musical composition of the piece. If I can do a cool version of the song by putting my own stamp on the music, then I'm ready for whatever criticism comes my way – good or bad.
JAM: You cite B.B. King as a major influence in your life. His impact was felt when you were in seventh grade and you opened for him. Was it really a life altering moment?
Listen, it was a great honor to meet B.B. King at the age of 12. We have forged a friendship going on 20 years because of that one encounter. At the end of the day, I always wanted to be a guitarist because of the sense of independence it gave me. I didn't care what was going on in the world around me, losing myself in the guitar always gave me this sense of freedom. In fact, B.B. played on my last album, Black Rock, and it was a real honor for me to record with him.
JAM: Two other teenage guitar wunderkinds - Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd – saw their stars burn out before they had a chance to make lasting statements with their music. Has that ever weighed upon your conscious?
I totally disagree with that statement. Those two are friends of mine and truth be told, every body has their own career path they choose to follow. At the end of the day, some people want to have a family. You can't begrudge someone for following that direction instead of committing themselves to tour 250, 300 days a year. Both Jonny and Kenny have families. That takes a lot of responsibility and sucks up time they normally would have used to create music and tour. Kenny is in his 30's, and Jonny I think just turned 30. In no way do I think their stars have burned out. Their priorities in life shifted whereas mine stayed the same. My agent says I'm booked for 200 gigs this year. Great! Done! I'm in! It's that kind of thing.
JAM: In that context, have you taken a serious look at the direction their careers veered off in once they chose the family path, and did you consciously take alternate route when you came to that fork in the road?
I have watched a lot of people's careers approach that fork in the road, not only in my own genre, but in others as well. For instance, I admire B.B. King because he's been able to stay at the top of his game, and define a genre of blues, literally for 60 years. I've seen musicians have big breaks placed before them and they squandered the opportunity. If you dig really hard into other musical genres, you can find other examples of talented wasted, because they failed to make a move for one reason or another.
JAM: The blues is especially unique because it seems to rely on true emotions and feeling more than anything else.
The blues isn't an absolution. This type of music relies on you maintaining a connection with your fans throughout the song. It's also about connecting with who you are as a person and again, being honest about the music. Listen, I can make the most sincere Polka record ever and find an audience for it. As long as the music isn't pandering to an audience for a quick hit or sell, then people will respond to it. The quick sell only works once or twice in your career. If you haven't maintained a solid foundation to build your music around, then you won't be in this business for long.
JAM: When you encounter a purist like B.B. King, is the greatest lesson you can take away from him is prepare yourself for the long haul in this business, don't get caught up in the short term gains?
B.B. taught me that it's the overall body of work you put together throughout your life that defines your career. It's not one or two hit albums surrounded by a bunch of mediocre work. At the end of the day, your lasting statement in this business is determined by how you treated the music, your fans and more importantly, yourself. Right now, I am 34 years old and I have made eleven albums in 12 years. I have also traveled more miles around this country, and the world, than I would care to admit. I don't know what the next decade is going to hold for me so the only option I have is to take it one day at a time. Yeah, my schedule is planned out for the next year, year and a half, but there is no master plan for world dominance. All I can do is offer up the best blues rock music I can make, and let the chips fall where they may.
JAM: Has your family foundation been the bedrock that laid the foundation for the career you enjoy today?
I have a great family. My mother and father provided me with a great support system growing up. It's helped me out over the past 22 years. That's a long time, a very long time, to be in this business, especially when there's no guarantee you're going to make it. This is the kind of profession where you don't really have a Plan B to fall back on if the music thing you're pursuing doesn't work out.
JAM: Do you have time for regrets?
That's kind of an open-ended question. I am 34 years old. I do what I love to do for a living. Certainly it has been hard to build a career in this business, but anybody who tells you it's easy is simply lying to you. But you know, you can say that about any profession you're in. I mean, what job do you know is easy and the roads are all paved with gold and good times? Any career choice you make requires paying your dues. When it's the blues, however, the meter is always running, because you never know which road you're going to follow.