Joe Bonamassa: “Oh it sounded shit, never mind”

joe bonamassa 2016

BLUESFEST Byron Bay is almost upon us and American blues-rock maestro Joe Bonamassa is seeking redemption.

His two exclusive Australian shows at the Easter long weekend event, while hardly requiring a crossroads-like pact with the devil, will provide the hugely talented singer-guitarist with a chance for atonement.

“I played Byron Bay one time; I believe it was 2010,” he says. “I had the shittiest backline and came off the stage thinking I had ruined my entire career in the country of Australia. I thought my guitar sound was just dreadful, but sod’s law meant that I had more people, artists included, coming up to me asking me ‘Man, what were you using up there because it sounded great?’. So I go ‘What fucking show were you watching?’. This year I’m actually shipping my own gear over there, so it gives me a fighting chance; at least me personally. But probably nobody will say anything. ‘Oh it sounded shit, never mind’ [laughs].”

The garrulous and amiable New Yorker’s 12th studio album, Blues of Desperation, will be released just in time for his Australian shows, and represents somewhat of a return to his roots.

“After exploring so many avenues – I was in a hard rock band, I did two years of doing traditional blues, we did The Three Kings tour, the album with Mahalia [Barnes], the stuff I do with Beth Hart – I woke up one day and thought that what I am really good at is blues-rock,” he says. “That’s actually probably what I’m best at, and I should get back to doing what I do best. The album represents that; the urgency to get back to swinging the heavier bat and playing heavier stuff.”

Blues of Desperation sees Bonamassa once again teaming up with producer Kevin Shirley; an arrangement that is unlikely to change any time soon.

“Kevin and I came up with the title based on the song,” Bonamassa says. “It has this weathered kind of feel. It was brought to my attention it was maybe too dark of a title, and for a minute it was changed to Drive, before I finally decided that my life should not become a focus group thinking about who will be turned off by a title. Frankly, it’s not going to sell one more or less copy either way, and I’ve always done things in my career that just felt good, natural and organic. If I saw the record in a store, I would stop and look at it. But if I saw an album called Drive; it’s too vanilla for me. [Kevin and I] have been together for 11 years now. I told him that I think the reason we get on so well together is that everyone sticks to their job; I’m the travelling salesman, Kevin does the records, and Roy [Weisman, manager] runs the business. Kevin is great about putting me into situations that challenge me, and with musicians I would never think of. He has such a great vision of what I’m capable of, even when there is some resistance. I come in with the songs and we hash out the arrangements and we’re pretty much always on the same page. I’ve also learned to appreciate the inspiration of a single take, rather than grind the inspiration out of it, if you know what I mean?”

At only 38, Bonamassa has already been a working musician for 26 years, having opened for B.B. King when he was 12. The idea that a true bluesman never really retires might not apply here, however.

“I reckon I have another 24 years left before I can officially retire after 50 years in,” he laughs. “I’m not a run-of-the-mill blues guy. I tell you, I’m not going to be a lifer. The problem is to do this at a high level and to keep the quality up, it takes a lot of preparation. I’m not one of those cats who just walks on stage and it all just comes out of me. I think there’s more to life; I don’t want to look down the line when I’m too old to pursue something else and think I squandered the opportunity [to do something else]. Not that having a career in music is a bad thing; it’s an honour to do this for a living, but there’s more to life than plugging a Gibson guitar into a Fender amp, you know? There’s a big world out there. I get to travel it, but I never see it. I go to all these great places, and I see the hotel and the gig. I could get up super-early and see some museum but I don’t feel like doing that after singing the night before. I’d like to be a tourist once in a while, you know?”

On top of his abundant playing and writing skills, Bonamassa has been a student of the blues since childhood, starting with the ’60s British blues guitarists who brought the form to the masses.

“It was my original gateway into blues,” he says. “As a kid, to hear blues music that was basically early heavy rock was very appealing to me. As a six or seven year-old, it’s very hard to get the subtleties of Robert Johnson, as you can barely hear it on a record player. Only 20 years after the fact did I realise the true genius of those original masters, and even now I’m discovering them and realising how many of their ideas were, let’s say, borrowed by the British blues-rock scene of the ’60s. My first introduction was the Jeff Beck Group, and that was the gateway. After that it was Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, all the Free stuff – I was enamoured with Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore. [Gary Moore album] Still Got The Blues was one of the most pivotal albums in my early teenage years because it taught me I could overplay and people would still like it [laughs].”

While Bonamassa is a big fan of Australia and its music, he admits he lives in a bubble when it comes to what music is most popular here, or anywhere. Luckily his Queenslander girlfriend keeps him informed.

“I have a lot of ties to Australia,” he says. “Mahalia [Barnes] and I were literally just a week ago at Carnegie Hall; she was singing with me. I kind of know what is going on. I’m wilfully ignorant about the pop music scene. I mean, sometimes I’ll run into somebody and my girlfriend knows I have that what-the-fuck look on my face. She’ll be like ‘That’s actually a really popular artist’, and I’ll be like ‘Great! Congratulations’. One guy I love is [blues slide guitarist] Dave Hole, who lives in Perth. He’s one of the best.”


For The Brag


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