He might demur, but Joe Bonamassa has become a blues-rock figurehead. We pin him down on tour to talk of classic blues sounds, of Clapton and Gatton, of cutting down from a mere 300 guitars and to hear the inside story on his chart-topping Driving Towards Daylight album. Interview by Michael Heatley
When you’ve worked 20 years for a career landmark, it’s nice to have the luxury of savouring the moment. But when Joe Bonamassa’s lucky thirteenth album, Driving Towards The Daylight, hit the top of the UK chart, he was where he wanted to be – on the road, entertaining the punters at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire.
Four years ago, The Ballad Of John Henry’s title track was dedicated to a blue-collar icon who, legend has it, built the mighty railroads that span the United States. ‘John Henry is the ultimate working-class hero,’ Bonamassa then explained, adding: ‘Our music appeals to anybody who wants to make something of themselves – create an opportunity instead of having it handed to them on a platter.’
Bonamassa could have been describing himself: his success has been achieved without any major-label backing whatsoever. And with a UK #1 album to his credit, the man whose greatest fear was inhabiting ‘the miscellaneous B section’ of his local record store can finally say he’s arrived.
The tour had reached Lexington when he took time out to talk to Guitar & Bass. As Bonamassa explained, he was facing ‘my least favourite gig – a show in a cut-down arena’. The previous night, an auditorium show in Nashville to 2,600 people, was more fun. ‘It was more or less sold out. We’re mostly playing pretty big theatres; they’re nice places to play, we’ve been playing them for a couple of years. We used to play 1,700-1,800-seaters, but now we’re pretty full every night…which is cool.’
Larger venues and bigger fame seem to hold no attraction for this reluctant axe hero. ‘This is it for me, man!’ he grimaces, gesturing around him. ‘I drag around two tour buses, 20 people and two massive semi trucks – I’m done! I don’t want private jets, I don’t want big arenas, I don’t want hits.’
Tough luck there, Joe. But the self-confessed ‘dork with a Les Paul’ is comfortable with the format…
‘I think this show is honest. It’s intimate enough that you have some audience interaction. We’re not Muse, where it’s a spectacle, and I’m not a front guy like Mick Jagger. At the end of the day we’re very blessed to play the places we can play. We play 4-5,000-seaters sometimes and that’s fun, but there’s plenty to pay everybody and not have the pressure of semi trucks and seven buses.’
With his press agent now busy promoting UK gigs in 2013, the Bonamassa diary seems to be filling up at an alarming rate. Does he ever stop working?
‘Yes, we stop in the summer. I don’t get into the festival kerfuffle. A lot of bands do; we do the exact opposite. We’re a “hard ticket” band. A “hard ticket” is somebody who walks up to the box office and buys a ticket to see Joe Bonamassa. A “soft ticket” is someone who buys a ticket to go see a festival, and I just happen to be there.
‘We have built a core following of people who want the show to start at eight – no opener, let’s just get on with it. That’s what we’ve been able to build up. We stay out of all the summer nonsense. It’s a lot of extra work for the crew. They set up at 7am, we get on at 10pm if you’re lucky. Everything changes when it rains, ’cos you’re outside. We’re happy with our little “seater” shows.’
The new album has been previewed on the tour and, as Joe explains, many of the songs are fast becoming favourites. He cites Dislocated Boy, Driving Towards The Daylight, Who’s Been Talkin’ and Stones In My Passway as tracks that were played live in the studio and so transfer naturally to the stage.
Guitars aside, the album shows just how much Joe has progressed as a singer in recent years. Yet tackle him about this element of his musical prowess and, unlike all things guitar, you’ll find him momentarily lost for words.
‘You know…I think…’ he stutters and pauses before gathering breath. ‘I just try to play. I’ve been singing for a long time but every year I feel a bit stronger as a singer. And that’s always a good thing, you know.’
One song that immediately shows off his vocal confidence is title track Driving Towards The Daylight. Given that he’s had this killer ballad in his locker for a while – it was penned with session guitar ace Danny ‘Kootch’ Kortchmar – had he waited before having the guts (and chops) to tackle it?
‘No,’ he counters, revealing that the decision to make it a ballad came at a late stage in the studio. ‘You wouldn’t recognise the old song if I played it to you. The song’s 10 years old. I had the chorus, the cadence and the melody. Someone said, “Why don’t you make it a ballad?” And I said, “Hey, that works!”’
He believes his best performance on the album – or, at least, ‘the most unique’ – is probably the Robert Johnson song Stones In My Passway, and it represented something of a personal challenge. ‘It’s a different take on it,’ he says. ‘It messed me up in the beginning; I was almost about to put my guitar down and say you may want to find someone else to try and figure this out, because I do not feel it the way they had it. Anton [Fig, drums] and Kevin [Shirley, producer] had it; it’s on the two and the fours and you had to skip the ones, so it just wasn’t natural – I was feeling it on the one.’
The result is perhaps unsurprisingly Zep-esque – and, coincidentally or otherwise, Bonamassa chose to employ a 1967 Gibson doubleneck.
‘I borrowed it from a friend. They’re cool. I also used a pair of Lazy J tweed Twin copies, and they’re really awesome. They’re a British company, but Jesse Hoff, I believe is from North Carolina, living in the UK – he makes wicked stuff.’
Joe calls Driving Towards The Daylight his ‘blues’ album, which might confuse those of us who’ve always filed him under blues-rock. ‘We’re just trying to mess up the blues a little bit,’ he explains – though he’s gone on record elsewhere as saying he’s apt to assign his albums one-word descriptions – predecessors Dust Bowl and Black Rock were ‘Americana’ and ‘worldly’ respectively.
As Joe is predominantly playing a Gibson Les Paul (when he’s not toting a Telecaster), is it fair to assume he’s consciously harking back to the sound of the Clapton era? ‘Well,’ he considers, ‘I wanted to make a blues record, and I wanted to make a British blues record… that was kind of the whole point.’
One track in particular, his take on Howlin’ Wolf’s Who’s Been Talkin’, could have come off 1966’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton album, the famed Beano LP. ‘We were going for that Bluesbreaker tone on that,’ Joe confirms. ‘I used a ’59 Les Paul and a Bluesbreaker combo. And that’s all it is.
‘People theorise that to maybe get all that gain on it that Clapton had a treble booster. But if you get the right Bluesbreaker combo, plug the Les Paul into that, you get that sound. And if you room-mic it and not have a close mic, it really is that sound.
‘I do believe it when Clapton said “I just plugged straight in”, because if you’ve ever had the privilege of having that gear in the room with the right amp, the right Bluesbreaker that’s fresh and really wanting to make a sound, you just go okay, so that’s how it is… You turn it up to 8 if you want a little more gain, but 10 is actually too much. That’s the formula for that sound.’
The album is a clever mix of self-penned songs and covers that were stored away for future use. ‘We have a stockpile. Kevin finds some stuff and I’ll find stuff. I’ve got a playlist on my computer.’
In addition to Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, Joe plunders the songbooks of Willie Dixon (I Got All You Need) Bill Withers (Lonely Town, Lonely Street) and Tom Waits (New Coat Of Paint), among others. The final track is a duet with raspy-voiced Australian Jimmy Barnes on his 1987 hit Too Much Ain’t Enough Love, the pairing inspired by Joe’s Aussie keyboard-player Rick Melick, while A Place In My Heart, penned by ex-Whitesnake man Bernie Marsden, has the feel of a late, lamented axe hero… but is it specifically a tribute?
‘It’s definitely got the spirit of Gary Moore,’ Joe admits, likening the effect to the Irishman’s signature song Still Got The Blues. ‘But we’ve added that melody in the top.’ Moore was a significant influence on Bonamassa, who’s previously acknowledged that he ‘paved the way for artists like me to have a career.’
A second guitar presence is added on eight of the tracks by a certain Brad Whitford of Aerosmith fame. ‘I’ve known Brad for a couple of years,’ says Joe. ‘Our producer Kevin said, “Why don’t we get Brad in to play second guitar? It’ll be fun and I think he’ll add a nice perspective.” So anyway, he did.
‘He’s really steeped in British blues and we talked the same language a lot of times, you know. We’re all about the Beano record. Take it off the table that he’s a legend from a legendary band – he’s just Brad, who happens to be a legendary rock star from a legendary band called Aerosmith. He and I, we’re just geeks!’ Brad evidently enjoyed the month off from shadowing Joe Perry – so much so he sat in with Bonamassa and band in Nashville.
Joe’s been involved in a number of other projects between albums, one of which was a live DVD recorded last year at New York’s Beacon Theatre. It included guest appearances from John Hiatt, Beth Hart and Paul Rodgers, a cast list he describes as ‘awesome!’ His recorded collaboration with Hart, Don’t Explain, was one of G&B’s albums of last year. Joe has known Beth for a couple of years. ‘She’s a real talent and a real star,’ he praises. ‘We did some gigs together in Europe in 2010, the last time we did festivals, and it was apparent to me that it was like watching a female version of Steve Marriott.’
Bonamassa’s set up on the jointly-credited album was deliberately low-key, to avoid accusations of limelight-stealing. ‘It’s really stripped back. I plugged into a couple of old Jim Kelly amps. That was all I needed. You want some overdrive? Turn the volume up!’
Having cut Free’s Heartbreaker on his Dust Bowl album, playing live with their former singer was something of a dream fulfilled. ‘It was just a wonderful experience playing with Paul, especially Free songs. My God, you know… that was just awesome. Paul is a rock god! A freak of nature. It’s scary!’
To be played well, Free material requires a great rhythm section. ‘And we’ve got a great rhythm section!’ Joe exults. ‘You gotta play simple stuff. That’s the key to Free. I was pretty militant during the rehearsals before Paul got there. I’m a real stickler for it being done correctly.’
Joe also has a ‘militant’ attitude towards fame. ‘I’m not sure if I’m famous,’ he muses. ‘I’m a pretty well-known guitar player at this point. But at the end of the day, I just enjoy playing the guitar, and it’s the same as it’s always been. And every day, even when my hands are all shredded from 20 weeks of touring. I just enjoy it – whether I’m with Beth or with whoever.’
Joe is fervent about spreading the gospel of guitar to kids, and no wonder – he was schooled in the blues from an early age, with BB King taking him on tour at the tender age of 12. Now he’s spokesperson for the Blues Foundation’s respected Blues In The Schools program, volunteering his time during tours to speak with groups of high-school students about the heritage of blues music.
‘I think it really helps – you’ve gotta have a new audience. I think also, too, if you can just go “Hey listen, kids, this is what got me into it” – if you’re into it, great; if not, then I tried.’
One of the reasons he wants to give back is his own education at the hands of one Danny Gatton. ‘He was a cat that I met when I was a kid. He was very nice to me and I just knew him as my friend Danny. He’d play gigs around the North East of America, and I’d go out and he’d teach me some guitar licks in the afternoon and teach me about Americana music. He was very generous and let me sit in with the band, and we had this little act where he’d play the slide with a beer bottle and I’d play the rhythm on the top, and it was all done on one Telecaster.
‘I learned a lot… a college education from just being around him. He had so much music in him, and for a long time I considered him my friend and guitar teacher. He was just one of those guys. I didn’t realise that he was a legend. I don’t think he would’ve either! He was one of the greatest players ever to pick up the instrument, but he was just Dan. He knew he was good, but he’d say there’s more to it than being good. Everybody’s good, you gotta get out there and play.’
The significance of blues musicians and the crossroads is well documented. Having just turned 35, Joe Bonamassa is halfway through his allotted threescore years and ten. How would he assess the last 10 years and what are his hopes for the next 10?
‘My last 10 were a whirlwind,’ he grimaces, ‘and my hopes for the next 10 are that it will be less than that! I couldn’t keep up this pace for another 10 years, there’s just no way. Even when I was 25, I could go forever – and did, essentially – but there’s no way that I could do those kind of tours, 13 in a row in a van, any more. I’d collapse.’ Joe Bonamassa, reluctant chart-topper,
we salute you.