Up Close & Personal with Joe Bonamassa

An Exclusive Interview with the Protoge Lifting the Blues to New Heights

    icon Jan 27, 2011
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Although his is not as readily a recognized name as the legendary Blues guitarists that both influenced and now sing praises to Joe Bonamassa, his reputation as one of the world’s great guitar players and a charismatic blues-rock star and singer-songwriter of stylistic depth and dimensions is rapidly growing.

With ten solo studio albums under his belt and his latest release, Black Rock, which is the fifth produced by Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes) the sound is an evolved mix of ‘60s-era British Blue Rock and roots-influenced Delta sounds. Backed with a  ‘super-group’ of musicians known as Black Country Communion, consisting of Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian, Bonamassa will be landing in the Mid-Michigan area March 16th for a performance at The Dow Event Center, plus giving away a signed guitar and tickets to the show in a special Valentine Appreciation Contest, details which you can read about on Page 9.

Born & raised in Utica, New York, Bonamassa quickly demonstrated his affinity, acumen, and talent on the guitar at an early age, receiving his first guitar from his father at the age of four and playing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix tunes note-for-note at the age of seven. When the opened for B.B. King at the age of 12, the legendary bluesman said of the youngster: “This kid’s potential is unbelievable. He hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface. He’s one of a kind.”

In 2009 Joe was named Best Blues Guitarist in Guitar Player Magazine’s Reader Choice Awards for the third consecutive year and in May 2009 he played to a sold out crowd at London’s Royal Albert Hall, at which he was joined on stage by his hero Eric Clapton for a performance of Further On Up the Road.

Last year coincided with Bonamassa’s 20th year as a professional musician, an extraordinary timeline for an artist just into his 30s. Having toured with artists ranging from Buddy Guy, Foreigner, Robert Cray, Stephan Stills, Joe Cocker and Gregg Allman, his recording career began in the early ‘90s with Bloodline, a hard-charging rock-blues group that also featured Doors keyboardist Robby Krieger’s son Waylon and Mile Davis’ son Erin.

Always seeking to push the envelope, his latest recording was done in Greece, as Joe sought to evolve a more ‘world’ feeling into his sound. Consequently, he used some of the best Greek musicians to add fresh flavor to several tracks.

On a frigid weekend in late January, I was fortunate to hook-up with Joe to discuss his present direction and focus with his music, along with what it was like to be cast into the spotlight of the major leagues at such a young age; as well as what fans can expect from his appearance at The Dow Event Center in March.    

Review: I understand that your parents owned and ran a guitar shop, so obviously you were born into an environment where music was an integral part of your life. At what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue music as a career?

Bonamassa: It’s true; my Dad owned a guitar shop so it was instilled in me pretty much from the get-go. My Dad gave me my first guitar when I was four years old and I remember playing to Eric Clapton songs. I think it was around the age of 12 when I opened for BB King and thought, “Wow, I could do this for the rest of my life!”

Review: I’d like to explore this whole arena of being somewhat of a child protégée, performing Jimi Hendrix songs note-for-note, and opening for the likes of BB at such a young age. Does having this happen to you in formative childhood years make it more challenging to continually evolve as an artist as you grow older?

Bonamassa: BB King gave me so much amazing advice about playing guitar and the music business overall. He was a true friend, mentor and inspiration for my career, as was Danny Gatton. They both taught me so much and playing with them is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. I feel very lucky to have discovered so young what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and was able to learn from some legendary teachers. Their advice kept me looking forward.

Review: I’ve often thought that so many first albums are often excellent because the artist has his or her entire life to create it; whereas the follow-up release usually only has a year or two to gestate. Is it more difficult to open your creativity the more seasoned you get, or does it become easier for you?

Bonamassa: I feel like I’ve been able to open myself up emotionally and creatively the older I’ve gotten. Especially now, in y 30s, I’m finding more inspiration in storytelling. With each record, I only start writing a few weeks before we record. I like to live in the moment and record what I’m feeling at that time and I think that allows each record to take on a life of its own. We always set out to make the best record that we can at the time.

Review: Who are some of the pivotal influences that you feel truly informed your evolution as a musician, and why?

Bonamassa: My Dad’s record collection probably had the biggest influence on me and I was and have always been more drawn to the British Blues genre. Early records from Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, and Free have really stayed with me and influenced me more than others.

Review: What was it like working with the legendary producer Tom Dowd on your first solo album?

Bonamassa: It was amazing and really inspiring because I learned so much from him. Tom really pushed me in a way that only Kevin Shirley has done since. He taught me about the recording process and what goes into making a record. He was a great teacher and a true gentleman. I feel very lucky to have worked with him.

Review: How was it to play Royal Albert Hall and sell out in less than one week? Do you feel European audiences are more acclimated towards Blues than a majority of Americans these days?

Bonamassa: It was fantastic and frankly, the greatest moment of my life. And yes, I do feel Europeans are more acclimated towards the Blues than Americans. America has so many musicians and the sound is constantly evolving and right now Pop music is really the ‘in thing’, but you are seeing a lot of rock musicians drawing on the Blues. No matter what, Blues is always going to be the heart of Rock’ n Roll.

Review: What do you feel distinguishes your sound the most as an artist?

Bonamassa: I always felt that I wanted to do a little something different with the Blues and make it sound interesting, fresh, new and exciting. And I think we’ve been doing that with each album, or at least I hope we have. I just want it to be enjoyable.

Review: What do you feel is the most challenging component of the music business and also the most rewarding?

Bonamassa: The music business landscape in general is incredibly challenging these days. Nothing works the way it used to and it makes people very nervous. I think we’ve been able to navigate it in a way that works. We’re touring all year long and we’ve been selling out bigger venues and we’re putting out new albums each year. The fans seem to be responding to what we’re doing, which I find more rewarding than anything.

Review: What goals have you set for yourself in 2011?

Bonamassa: We’re releasing a new record called Dust Bowl in March and I’m really excited to hear what people think. And I was just in the studio in L.A with Glenn, Derek and Jason (Bonham) recording our second Black Country Communion album. We’ll be going on tour this summer and I’m hoping people really enjoy that.

Review: What can fans expect from your current tour when you land at the Dow Events Center on March 16th?

Bonamassa: I just hope to put on a good show. I love to play live, it’s my favorite thing to do, and that’s why I do it. Nothing pleases me more than to perform for an audience and make them feel good by the end of the night. I hope we can continue to do that on this tour. And we’ll be playing some new songs off the new record, which is always fun.

Joe Bonamassa Contest

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Comments (11)

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    mike finn

    I Thank who ever is bringing Joe Bonamassa to saginaw.I look at joe as the American dream where hard work and hours of dedication can pay off. Since the age 12 opening fot the king of the blues Mr. B.B. King to selling out Royal Albert Hall where he invited his guitar hero Eric Clapton on stage.I love the fact that joe jams with Warren Haynes and Eric Gales every chance he gets.I often think joe\'s great voice is over looked because he\'s such a great guitar player.Joe has a great site called JBXP.net wher he has free downloads and tour info. Joe has come a long way from the self proclaimed chubby white kid playing the blues to a modern day warrior leading the charge to making people stand up and listen to the blues.Hope to see a big crowd in saginaw,it will be a great show.Joe has a new album (dust bowl) out on March 22nd.Warning please wear a chin guard,in case your jaw hits the floor from a true masters incredable playing.See you there and in Grand Rapids.

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    Vicente Vasquez

    Since Joe & I are roughly the same age & come from the same generation (90\'s Alternative-X). I\'ve feel I\'ve grown up & matured with him. He\'s always stuck to his guns & kept a semi-blues rock format. His song structures & writing skills have advanced over the years, which set him apart from his peers. As a fellow guitarists & musician, Joe\'s lesson columns & licks have kept me on my toes over the years. Les Paul said it best \"If your mother can hear your guitar playing on the radio & know it\'s you, you\'ve made it!\" I think Joe has made it....

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    Dana Osmun

    Besides being a monster player, Joe plays with a fire that most don\'t possess in blues music today. While Joe plays with a modern, youthful approach to the blues, he still manages to keep the old school roots in place. I first became a fan when he was with Bloodline as a teenager, this is still my favorite JB era but he is really coming into his own and creating his own voice today. One of the best traits about Joe is his down to earth persona. He just an \"everyday Joe\", that is until he gets a guitar in his hands and then he rises to the top. He truly is a modern day guitar hero. It\'s good to see Joe keeping the blues alive and well, and bringing it to new audiences around the world.

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    Terri Collins

    I prefer not to compare Joe to the legends whose music were his roots. He has created a new style of earthy, sensual music that blends blues and rock with passionate lyrics that captivate and move me everytime I hear his songs. On stage he gets lost in his music...so do I !

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    Joe Balbaugh

    I am going to have to go ahead and agree with tgcollins. It is hard to take an artist and compare them to their influences. Especially when they have created they\'re own sound based from what influences them. I will take this time to say though I feel this article is very well written. I feel that it really captures a good picture of Joe Bonamassa as an all around person aside from being a musician. His music is distinct to me straight down to the passion and drive behind it. He definitely brings the a great timbre to the table.

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    LeeAnn Kuehne

    Mr. Bonamassa has a beautifully versatile blues style that is both phenomenal and effortless. His level of emotional energy emits through his fingertips and causes his guitar to create a life of its own. Humble yet confident, Joe Bonamassa is a true artist becoming lost inside of his music yet he never loses sight of his audience and the gift he shares. He is a personal favorite of mine due to the fact that I am instantly mesmerized by each and every song. The world should feel privileged to be invited into his world.

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    Thomas Anderson

    I only became associated with Joe Bonamassa a couple of weeks ago due to a Royal Albert Hall concert broadcast on public television. Until that program I never really cared for the blues. It seemed somewhere far off, something I couldn\'t relate to and could never imagine to convincingly perform. Joe\'s music touched me. It flowed trough my veins with a pulse. Joe\'s gentlemanly attitude toward playing made blues music something I could touch and feel, instead of existing somewhere far out of reach of my senses. Joe Bonamassa has been my bridge to the blues, and speaks it in a language I can understand. It excites me to wonder what lies further on up the road.

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    Donna hill

    Joe Bonamassa is not new to the music business but I am a new fan of his after having seen his Royal Albert Hall performance on TV. He has touched a nerve in a lot of us who grew up in the 60\'s and 70\'s because he has a knowledge of and an appreciation of the greats from those days - Led Zeppelin, among others. He doesn\'t attempt to replicate those artists but instead has a style of his own that harkens back to the day when a musical artist not only had the ability to write great songs but to sing and play them. Joe\'s virtuosity on the guitar is simply astonishing. His live performances are filled with energy and passion yet he is as relaxed as if he were playing with a group of friends in your living room. It is so apparent in his live performances that he truly enjoys every minute, every song and loves what he does. And the audience loves every minute of it, too. Yet he is very humble and gracious when you have an opportunity to meet him in person. Joe is what the music business used to be and should be all about. Honestly, talent, authenticity, artistry and above all - the love of the music.

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    Craig Sheerin

    I love Bonamassa because of his unique interpretation of The Blues. He\'s not just playing 12-bar blues over and over. Instead, he gives it an edge by infusing his music with rock riffs and unique phrasing. He\'s an artist worth paying attention to because he\'s got raw talent that he has worked very hard at developing into something that sounds natural. He\'s not just a technician, but a true artist. And, he\'s got chops. You gotta love his voice!

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    julie julie

    After listening to Joe since Bloodline in the early \'90s, it\'s easy to compare influences and say how much he could sound like \'this or that\'. But the truth lies in the desire and commitment, much like the article reflects--the history of his music (10 releases strong!), the boundaries he has stretched, the style he has developed and the emotion he puts forth makes him the real deal. He doesn\'t need to be flashy, he doesn\'t need special guests to bolster his name among the ranks, but he dips throughout music history, making his own name. Now with the passing of Gary Moore, a friend of Joe\'s, it might be up to Joe to carry the torch of rocking/jamming/blues that many fear to tread...there are so many sides to his coin and he\'s only just begun. We should be thankful we can live in a generation that gets to view one of the greats in real time. Thank you Joe for pressing onward...and upward!

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    George Head

    I learned of Joe Bonamassa in a back-door way; a friend of mine who is a big fan of the late, great Danny Gatton gave me the albums ‘Cruisin\' Deuces’ and ‘88 Elmira St’. Reading about Gatton led to discovering he mentored Bonamassa’s when Joe was eleven. Wow. I first heard him while browsing Amazon and listening to tracks from ‘You & Me’; I bought that album and a three others (‘Sloe Gin’, ‘Had to Dry Today’ & ‘The Ballad of John Henry’). I was blown away; I listened to nothing else for two weeks. Bonamassa sounds like my favorite guitarists, and then doesn’t. On his earlier albums his influences are more distinct: Hendrix, SRV, Guy, Gatton, Clapton, Beck; they’re all there. In later albums these influences blend into his unique style. I saw Joe at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco last year. It was an incredible concert – the place was packed and I was amazed that a guitarist as good as Bonamassa would be in a venue holding 960 people, and not at the Bill Graham Auditorium instead. 200 words just ain’t enough to praise Bonamassa; you’ll have to see for yourself. I’ll be there.