Joe Bonamassa is back on the road across the UK this week bringing his en vogue brand of modern blues rock to the masses.
RUSHONROCK’S Ian Murtagh caught up with one of the hardest working men in music for an exclusive chat.
RUSHONROCK: It’s now more than 15 years since you released your first album A New Day Yesterday. What does today’s Joe Bonamassa think of Joe Bonamassa back then and what would the young Bonamassa think of the modern day version?
JOE BONAMASSA: I was 21 and if I’d seen what I’m like today I’d have thought ‘Who’s that pretentious guy all dressed up in a suit standing at the podium thinking he’s the real deal?’ As for what I think of young Joe: ‘Who’s that fat, long haired guy from upstate New York who thinks he can sing and play guitar?’
RUSHONOROCK: Not quite the answer we were expecting though clearly your music has evolved over the years. Can you talk about that progression?
JB: Every time you make a record you are trying to develop and every time you hit the road you’re trying to improve on your previous tour. I like to think both in the studio, and on stage, I’ve got better. In hindsight, I was a misguided youth. I just wanted to make music which said ‘look at this, I can play the guitar pretty well’. It was the same in concert. I’d walk on stage, plug in and just go for it. There wasn’t a lot of thought in the whole process.
RUSHONROCK: On tours, what can we expect when you come to the UK later this month?
JB: A full-on show, the complete Bonamassa experience if you like. We start off with a three-piece and then keyboards and even a horn section comes into it. Of course there will be blues, rock and acoustic music but the audience will also hear what I’d describe as a ‘swing band sound’. Obviously, we’ll be showcasing material from recent albums but there’s quite a bit of retrospective music in the show too. Stuff from Blues Deluxe and even A New Day Yesterday. And even those songs which are played all the time have been adapted to sound that little bit different. I guess you’d call it freshening up.
RUSHONROCK: You talk about progression and development but when you look at your back catalogue, was there one particular album that suddenly represented the new Joe Bonamassa as opposed to the old?
JB: Absolutely. The defining moment in my career was when I teamed up with my producer Kevin Shirley 10 years ago. The first album we worked on together was You And Me and I would argue that is when the real Joe Bonamassa first emerged. There was only a 12-month gap between that and previous release Had To Cry Today but, musically, it’s a chasm.
RUSHONROCK: How important is Kevin in your career?
JB: He’s crucial. If I hadn’t met Kevin, I would probably still be playing shows to a few hundred blues fans – not selling out Red Rock three years in a row oR playing Arenas around Europe. Kevin tells it as it is – and then some! I can still recall one of our first meetings and he didn’t mince his words. ‘The band’s dreadful, your songs are weak and your voice needs improvement’, he said. That was his initial verdict. ‘So you like me?’ I replied in a state of shock! But he was right. It’s a ruthless world out there and he basically laid out the career path for me to follow. Call it being cruel to be kind but listening to him and heeding his advice was the best thing I’ve ever done.
RUSHONROCK: One opinion of your music over the years is that first you proved yourself to be an excellent guitarist, then a fine vocalist and now an impressive songwriter in your own right. Would you agree?
JB: I certainly wouldn’t disagree. My singing is something I take great pride in because my voice needs high maintenance. Playing the guitar comes naturally and in a way, it’s the same with songwriting. Of course, you have to practice and when it comes to writing new songs, there’s a fair bit of experimenting before everything comes together. But looking after your voice takes an awful lot of hard work especially when you’re on the road playing five or six gigs a week. You want it to sound as good on the last night of a tour as it did on the first or second. I’d like to think if someone heard me both times they wouldn’t detect a real difference. What they probably wouldn’t realise is the work that goes into ensuring that is the case.
RUSHONROCK: And your songwriting?
JB: Most concert-goers like to hear the older, established songs. In whatever genre, they are the ones that tend to get louder applause than the newer stuff. So when a new one gets the cheers, you know you’ve written a good one. That’s what happened with Driving Towards The Daylight. I included it in the setlist of the tour that preceded the release of the album of the same name. I remember the first time I played it, the audience responded positively. It was the same the next night and the next and so on.
RUSHONROCK: Is that your favourite album?
JB: I like it but if I had to name one it would be The Ballad of John Henry. Everything came together for that one but the recording experience was a rollercoaster of emotions. At the time, I had some of the happiest times of my life and some of the saddest. Having such extreme emotions probably brought out the best in me and that is reflected in the tracks. There were days when I was out of my mind with grief and that comes through in the music. Last Kiss, Happier Blues and The Great Flood are songs close to my heart. John Henry was followed by Black Rock which some critics saw as a bit of a comedown but I regard it as my most underrated album. There’s a Greek influence on it which some people don’t like but I believe it makes the sound more interesting.
RUSHONROCK: For someone yet to hit the big 4 O, you’ve got quite a back catalogue. Is it hard to select what songs to play and which ones to leave out?
JB: Not really. The cool thing about this configuration of the band is that we can play absolutely anything. Sometimes when you hit the road, there are certain songs you can’t consider for logistical reasons. But there’s so much flexibility in the band, so much expertise and so much adaptability – everything is up for consideration.
RUSHONROCK: You are clearly not a believer in the ‘less is more’ philosophy, releasing new material year in, year out. And that’s not to mention your time with Black Country Communion and your collaboration with Beth Hart. Are you a workaholic?
JB: Look, I’m not the first recording artist to release material on such a regular basis. BB King did it throughout his life and there are many others I could mention. I like what I do and I do what I like. As it happens, I won’t be in the recording studio again until 2017.
RUSHONROCK: So from a feast to a famine?
JB: Not quite. There’s an album in the can that I finished in July which should hit the shelves in the New Year. But right now, I’m just looking forward to performing live again. I think it’s going to be our best tour yet.
Joe Bonamassa plays the following UK dates:
Newcastle Metro Arena Wednesday Oct 21
Liverpool Echo Arena Friday Oct 23
Leeds First Direct Arena Saturday Oct 24
Nottingham Capital FM Arena Sunday Oct 25 Cardiff
Motorpoint Arena Tuesday Oct 27
Bournemouth BIC Wednesday Oct 28
Brighton Centre Friday Oct 30
Brighton Centre Saturday Oct 31