Friday, 18 July 2014

Feature - Joe Bonamassa

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday July 18.

Finding The Blues In The Heart Of Nashville

“I love being the weak link,” laughs Joe Bonamassa. “I love being the guy that gets challenged.”

This isn’t something you expect Bonamassa to say. Electric blues/rock guitarist par excellence and one of the most prolific artists of our time (if not largely ignored by most outside of the relatively small ‘blues’ world), this is a man not used to the ‘challenged sideman’ role. And yet this is where he found himself recently, in Australia in early July adding guitar to a new Mahalia Barnes album.

“We did that record last week, we did it in three days,” he says, referencing the record of Betty Davis covers Barnes brought him in for. “But [as a sideman], you’ll never see me happier. You’ll never see me happier than when I’m just one of the cats in the room… or when I’m the weak link.”

Despite his assertions, Joe Bonamassa is no weak link, whether he’s out front, or just one of the cats. Since the turn of the century, he’s released 10 studio records, at least 11 live records, almost as many DVDs, a couple of collaboration albums with Beth Hart, three records with heavy rockers Black Country Communion, not to mention a slew of other collaborations – this isn’t the mark of a weak link, it’s the mark of a man on a mission.

Bonamassa’s latest, to be released in September which will coincide with his next Australian tour, is Different Shades Of Blue, his first ‘solo’ outing since 2012’s Driving Towards The Daylight. It stands out, amongst the masses, as it’s his first record of all originals, all of which were written with the help of some serious Nashville songwriting muscle.

“After [so many] albums, as a pragmatist, you’ve gotta go, ‘What next?’,” he laughs. “So I just went to Nashville with some ideas, some sketches of where I wanted to go. And these Nashville writers are so good, they’re so good at putting song structure and melody and choruses, keeping the lyrics not trite, no clichés, really deep musical cats. And that’s how it all started, I went to Nashville five times in 2013.”

Bonamassa, armed with just his ideas, teamed up with the likes of Jonathan Cain (Journey), James House (Dwight Yoakam) and Jerry Flowers (Keith Urban), and with their help, Different Shades Of Blue became a reality.

Bonamassa says he was intimidated working with such esteemed writers, again referencing his relishing the “weak link” role. “The only way to grow as a human and as a musician, is to be surrounded by people that are better than you,” he reasons.

The album itself is quite the multi-faceted beast. Helmed once again by long-time Bonamassa producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Joe Satriani, Cold Chisel, et al), it covers a lot of stylistic ground, from storming rockers to Chicago shuffles – not so much a rock record or a blues record, but a true Joe Bonamassa record.

“Well, the songs come as they come,” he muses on how eclectic the record is. “Obviously we wanted to keep a firm footing in the blues… it’s a typical Joe Bonamassa ADD record. I mean, I’ve made a career not knowing what I want to be when I grow up. And I think, because it’s so diverse, it becomes a bit more interesting.”

Whether or not the album brings him wider attention, remains to be seen.  “Where Jack White and The Black Keys succeeded, I failed,” he says. “They were able to make a hybrid of the blues that appealed to teenagers.” Bonamassa is secure in his own space however, and whether it’s recognised outside the blues world, he’s not the weak link, but the essential link, between modern blues and the rock ‘n’ roll it exists alongside.

Samuel J. Fell

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