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

Beth Hart: “Who wants to deal with being a recovering drug addict?”

beth hart

BETH HART is a singer-songwriter, storyteller and survivor all rolled into one.

Hand-picked to play Byron Bay Bluesfest after director Peter Noble saw her earn multiple standing ovations supporting Stephen Stills, the Californian will help the festival mark its 25th year.

“We put on an eclectic show,” she says. “It has blues, jazz, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and some singer-songwriter stuff. I’ll usually play a couple of songs from all my past records and then focus on the last two or three. There’ll be lots of energy and hopefully it’ll be a good time. I do a different show every night anyway, so it’s fun to play with it at a festival. I’ll watch the audience a little bit and kind of get a feel for what the vibe is or what kind of festival it is. Then we’ll work up a set before we go out and hope it works. It really drives some of my band members crazy when I change things around halfway through, but it’s important to be in tune with what’s going on, put on a good show and give people what they want. If I get the feeling they’re wanting something a bit harder or more aggressive I’ll change the set and throw something else out.”

As she speaks candidly about her past battles with the addictions that sent her spiralling out of control and saw her spend a stint in jail, Hart remains pleasingly upbeat.

“It’s a one day at a time thing,” she says. “Thanks to being involved with people that have come before me and have gotten sober I’ve had a lot of help. It’s been a little over thirteen years since I took drugs, thank God. I still have my little slip-ups here and there with alcohol but I’m healthy and married to a wonderful man, and I thank God I still get to make music and I’m still really excited about it. In the last couple of years I’ve gone in some different directions as a writer and that’s been really challenging in a good way. When I was on drugs it had got so bad that I wasn’t able to leave the house. When I was going through early recovery I had agoraphobia, so it was definitely a rough recovery, but I think that’s what’s kept me from ever going back. I would never survive it again. Is there a part of me that wishes it never happened? Sure. Who wants to deal with being a recovering drug addict; it never really goes away, but I think of it as a real gift and I mean that. It’s an opportunity to share something and they are the points in my life when I lean on people I love and my ego gets smashed. It’s like ‘holy crap, what am I going to do?’ It changed me and it still does, but the changes I’ve found are things like the ability to care for other people who are struggling instead of judging. It’s been a blessing.”

Since becoming sober, Hart’s resumé boasts a series of A-list collaborations with Slash, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy, and two albums with guitarist Joe Bonamassa.

“It just kind of clicks with Joe,” she says. “He and I really get off on similar genres of music. We both feel very passionately about the music, and when it comes to the songs that we chose for the Don’t Explain and Seesaw records we were both so invested in trying to bring something that was honest. I love him for that; he has such integrity and total commitment. I think he’s such a great artist; just fucking fantastic.”

Another positive aspect of having a sober and rehabilitated Beth Hart back in business is the prolific nature of her musical output.

“I’m making a new record in August with Rob Mathes,” she says. “I should be making another record with Joe Bonamassa a little bit after that, while simultaneously writing the following record after that as well, as it’s going to be with Kevin Shirley instead of Rob Mathes. So I’ll be doing lots and lots of writing in the upcoming months, which I love, so I’m having a good time and it’s flowing. There’s nothing worse than trying to write and being in one of those stalemates where I can’t move or come up with a thought; that’s always terrifying. I’m having a good time with that right now. I’m going to be touring, making a record, and then back to touring in the fall. That’s how I make my living; lots of time on the road. Last year I got a bit run down, so I took off with my instruments into the mountains where there was no TV or anything like that. Getting away from everything and everybody was really helpful for me. I’d never really rejuvenated like that before.”

Despite mixing it with big names in North America, it’s in New Zealand where Hart has had her biggest chart success to date, hitting the top spot in 1999 with single ‘LA Song (Out Of This Town)’. Her explanation for her success there?

“Oh God, I would be the last person to ask that,” she says. “I have no idea; I’m just happy when we can connect in some way.”