Joe Bonamassa’s latest CD is a rootsy, blues-packed reply to the big rock of last year’s Black Country Communion project – a statement of intent when it comes to his solo career. Interview by Dave Walsh
Some people just have the knack of making it look fun and easy, and Joe Bonamassa is one such man. Anyone who has caught one of his performances, either playing solo or as part of supergroup Black Country Communion, will know that his onstage flamboyance, charm and good nature beam all the way to the back seats of a venue. Ladle in a hefty dollop of finely-tuned talent for astute guitar playing, and it’s no surprise that he has garnered a huge following since his debut album A New Day Yesterday hit the shelves in 2000.
Bonamassa’s latest solo album Dust Bowl continues in the rich vein of blues-informed works that he has delivered since hitting the music world with that solid slap in the face over a decade ago. But there’s a new maturity that permeates this release and it perfectly documents the life of an on-the-road musician, recording an album as and when a gruelling schedule permits.
We caught up with the guitarist at home in LA midway through rehearsals for the tour to promote the album. In person Joe is as affable and good-natured as his onstage persona suggests. He never ducks a question and is happy to chat at length on all things music related and his love of guitars – and he also possesses a great sideline in anecdotes.
‘This one was written more on the road,’ confirms Joe. ‘We recorded it in three sections – we had to, as the touring was so brutal! I’ve heard people say that I sound more mature on this record. I’m not sure why. I guess we all get older, but I don’t wanna be one of those guys who suddenly finds his “inner jazz”! You know those guys who masquerade as a blues rock guitarist for 20 years and then say “Ya know, my heart’s really into jazz…” it’s a bit too Spinal Tap for me.’
The album also features some illuminating guest artists. ‘I met Vince Gill over the summer at the Crossroads concert,’ Bonamassa reveals. ‘He actually came up to me, as I’m not too great at introducing myself to famous people. So I’m sitting there minding my own business and Vince comes up and says “Hi, I’m Vince Gill.” And I said, “Yeah, I know who you are!” It turns out that he’d seen an hour-long edit of the Royal Albert Hall show that I did in 2009 and he wanted to say that he’d never heard of me until then, but he was very impressed. We ended up talking loosely about doing something together and I was like, let’s take this man up on his fine offer. It was now or never, so he was gracious enough to come down and play on two tracks.’
Dust Bowl also includes a ripping rendition of the John Hiatt song Tennessee Plates, with Hiatt himself adding vocals. ‘We decided to do the song, and my producer Kevin Shirley happened to be working with him the next day… small world! Kevin played him the song and John said “I’ll sing on it if you want.” He sang a couple of versions and I sang a couple, and that was it. He really loved it, so in return I’ll go and sing a song or two for his next record.’
Another highlight is the cover of Free’s Heartbreaker with Glenn Hughes; it sounds as if it was recorded on an analogue desk and then kept in a time capsule for 40 years. ‘You’re right,’ beams Joe. ‘That track has a really warm old ’70s sound. I don’t know why – we used the same shit that we used for the other songs.’
Nailing authentic vintage tones shouldn’t come as a problem to a man with access to some extremely droolsome guitars. Joe grew up in a guitar shop, so you won’t be surprised to discover that he knows his way around a good collectable instrument. ‘I have about 300 guitars. My parents had a shop for about 12 years. Early on my Dad could buy something for $500 and sell it for $750 or maybe $1000, so it was fun. Back then if you lost money on a guitar you kept it for yourself, or some parts fell off of it, and that was the worst that could happen. But nowadays, if you buy something for $50,000 and sell it for $53,000… well, it’s not fun anymore. If you make one mistake it can cost ten grand, so he got out of it.’
Joe’s love of the Les Paul is well documented, but he also has older gems from various makers. ‘I have everything from goldtops to vintage Teles and Strats. I dig archtops too, like the L-5 and the ES-350, and I’ve got all the signature ones from the ’60s – the Tal Farlow, the Trini Lopez, the Howard Roberts. Nice stuff.’
These collectables aren’t all locked away. Some make it to the stage, but many more turn up in the studio. ‘Most of the time I’m known for that big midrange LP tone, but I’m doing a record with Beth Hart and all I’m using on it is a ’55 blonde Gibson ES-225 with a Bigsby, an ES-350, and a ’53 Tele.
‘There’s also some new stuff on this album – an old Gibson Barney Kessel Custom on Dust Bowl and a Gibson ES-295, a red one with a Bigsby. The deep tremolo “cowboy guitar” is just the 295 through an old Marshall combo from the ’80s.’
A real highlight of Joe’s career so far was his sold-out date at the Albert Hall in 2009. ‘It was a great day. I’m glad it was successful. It was a lot of pressure, though… leading up to it, I was a mess.’ A notable guest on the night was Eric Clapton. ‘The real reason that came about is all down to the power of the computer. I saw that he was playing the Albert Hall a week after I was there and I figured he’d be rehearsing in London, so I wrote him an email and left my address and phone number. Two weeks later I got an email on a Sunday and the subject said “Albert”, so I thought it was just somebody congratulating me. I opened it and started reading and I go “Oh crap, I know who this is!” Then I had to write back – that was the scary part. He agreed to play a song with us, and on the day we had a little rehearsal. He was due to show up at 4.30pm, and five minutes beforehand his tech arrived and said “Eric would like to stand here and his amp should be over here,” as he doesn’t like to be too close to his amp. So, one cable and one daphne blue signature Strat were unpacked… and there was the Bluesbreakers tone.’
Was Joe nervous? ‘Honestly, it’s very strange – passing those riffs back and forth with Eric Clapton knowing full well that the stuff that you’re playing back to him, you’ve lifted off his record! A surreal feeling… but it was really cool. We rehearsed the structure of the song, but whenever we got too much into it he would stop and say “Let’s save it for the show” rather than have to recreate some magic moment later on, which was very smart.’
On the subject of heroes, news had filtered through to G&B the day before we spoke to Joe about the passing of Gary Moore. ‘Poor Gary, it was a shock. I didn’t hear he was in ill health. I only met him twice, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I know there are stories and a reputation, but there are rumours that I’m a tyrant, y’know, a party animal trashing his tour bus… when really after a show I’m on the bus with the band with a glass of red wine and a plastic bowl of Goldfish crackers! So I only go by how people treat me.
‘The first time we met was backstage at a photo-shoot for John Mayall and Gary Moore. I said to myself, there’s two of your freakin’ heroes right there – so I introduced myself to John as a big fan and I then said “Hello, Mr Moore, I owe you a big royalty for all the licks I’ve stolen over the years!” Gary was like, “Don’t worry about the royalties, I’ve illegally downloaded all your records.” He started smiling and I thought, that’s a fair trade… honestly, he was very complimentary.
‘The second time I saw him was at the Classic Rock awards and we just sat there and spent 40 minutes talking about what was then the new Orange Tiny Terror amp. He said “Y’know, Joe, you and I are 100-watt people, we like 100-watt amps – but you’ll love this,” so I checked them out and got one. We had a beer together and he was a great guy. I wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Gary Moore. He paved the way for the genre in which I currently enjoy success.’
That’s high praise, but Joe is known for his love of the blues greats and in particular blues from the British Isles. ‘It had more swagger and it was played on Les Pauls and Marshall amps – plus, those guys were rock stars. I listened to BB and Albert and Freddie King, and Howlin’ Wolf too of course, but those were the guys for me. All those great bands were short-lived but burned so brightly.’
Like many of his heroes, Joe is a hard working breed of musician. ‘I’m kind of a throwback to the old school, y’know,’ he offers. ‘I love making music and I love touring, and if you’re gonna tour you’ve gotta come up with fresh stuff. People say I work hard, and I do, but you know, at the height of Aretha Franklin’s career, in a three-year span she put out five full-length albums and had 16 singles. Now, that’s hard work…’