Thursday, 15 September 2016

Feature - Joe Bonamassa

Published in the September/October issue of Rhythms.

Having spent a few years experimenting with the form, JOE BONAMASSA has gone back to basics, and it’s paying off, as he tells SAMUEL J. FELL

He strides on stage. Suited and tall, he casts a shadow. Slim shades covering his eyes, hair slicked just so. He’s done it countless times and people have seen it all before but he still strides to his place at the front, always the front, and he commands attention, wielding his guitar and the band begin to vamp and he looks around, surveys it all, drinks in the noise, flaring his nostrils and smelling it too.

Lights flash and dim, bright again and he begins to play, stabbing and wrangling – slick, shmick, swinging dick – the sound is precise and it cuts, slice and dice, back and forward every which way and the rolling thunderhead gathers momentum, the big sound (effortlessly agile for its size) breaking over all who dare stand in its way.


Joe Bonamassa sits a little hunched over. He’s wearing jeans and a non-descript jumper, sneakers. He’s holding one of his many guitars, a Les Paul which he constantly strokes, leans over it, it’s a part of his body. It’s not plugged in, but it’s easy to hear, he runs licks whenever there’s a break in conversation, whenever I ask him a question. Listening back to the tape, all my questions are soundtracked by the fluid twang of his unplugged playing.

I’ve spoken to Bonamassa, blues guitar prodigy, a number of times before but never in the flesh. He seems smaller when not on stage. No less confident, more talkative in fact, but smaller, a little more fragile like being on stage is some sort of a life force. In an hour or so, he’ll get his fill, over on the Crossroads Stage at the sprawling Byron Bay Bluesfest. His mindset is beginning to shift, and so despite the fact he’s keen to talk, he’s shifting and beginning to think like a man with something to do, something important. He changes direction mid-sentence, his eyes flicker from his guitar to my face, to the darkening sky, to the people milling about backstage. He’s getting ready.

At one point, he looks over at the lagoon that encircles the artist area. He asks me if there are any ‘gators in there, which I find amusing because there are no ‘gators (or crocodiles) this far south, and also because Graham Nash had asked me the same question only 24 hours earlier. I tell him there definitely aren’t any, and he looks up instead and sees a flock of bats passing low overhead in the gathering gloom and he exclaims, and wonders where the hell he is. Then he laughs and strokes his guitar again and we carry on.

“Oh my god, to hear my mental conversation during a gig, Freud would have a field day,” he’s saying. I’ve ventured that he’s somewhat of a perfectionist, something anyone who has seen him play would have picked up on. “He’d be like, ‘Do you want to do this for a living? Do you hate yourself that much?’ Yeah, it’s like a prize fight. You can train for six months, you can spar with the best in the world, you can lay it all out, and you know, when you’re backstage just about to go on, you know as soon as the bell rings, it’s gonna be utter fucking chaos.

“How you win the day [though], is just trust in the force, you know what I mean? It may not sound the way you want it to sound, it may not feel the way it normally feels, but the pure inertia and it worked yesterday, it’ll work today. It’s that kinda vibe.”

Since he was 12, when he first opened for BB King, Joe Bonamassa has been in the spotlight. In the ensuing 27 years, he’s built for himself this perfectionist persona, and even if it is, as he says, utter fucking chaos, it still comes across as perfection, as being in the right place at the right time, everything seemingly exactly where it should be, even if that’s not the case.

He’s built for himself too, a reputation as one of the finest interpreters of the blues form in the world. He’s certainly not a purist, not musically, and indeed many critics cite the whole style-over-substance argument when describing what he’s done over the course of his 12 studio albums (along with a slew of live records, collaborations and side-projects). But regardless of what you think of his music, or how he plays the blues, he is certainly a perfectionist. And a very good one, too.

Bonamassa is back in Australia in September, only four or five months after our initial interview, in order to properly promote his latest release, Blues Of Desperation, which was officially released in the US a couple of days prior to Bluesfest. It’s an album which sees him coming back to basics, in that after a number of years exploring other variations of the blues, other styles inspired by the blues, he’s back to where he began, which to pigeonhole, is pure blues/rock.

“The response to the back-to-the-basics records, quite honestly feels better,” he muses. I ask him if that bothers him, if he’s annoyed by the fact his more artistic endeavours (for want of a better phrase) aren’t as lauded as his no-holds-barred, basic blues/rock records. Although as his many fans will note, Joe Bonamassa’s ‘basics’ aren’t exactly basic.

“You know what, it tells me a couple of things,” he says. “One, that I’m good at it, that’s probably what I’m best at – straight ahead blues/rock, unapologetic. My fans have been nice enough to go with me on many endeavours, many different styles, jazz/funk records or instrumental where I’m a sideman with Beth Hart, or essentially a sideman in a hard rock band. Ultimately, it does come down to the core, that mid-tempo sludgy blues/rock is kinda where I find my voice, and I find my calling. And that’s where the core fanbase really lies.

“There’s a little light and shade thrown in, but it’s that playbook, and so I’m more than honoured. [And] anytime anybody buys a record in 2016, I’m with you.”

“I wanted to do another all-original record like we did with Different Shades Of Blue (2014),” he then says on what his MO was with this new album. “I wrote with most of the same songwriters, except we added Tom Hambridge, and Tom and I came up ‘Mountain Climbing’ and ‘Distant Lonesome Train’, and it was just high energy. And that’s what I wanted to do, higher energy, you know. It’s easy to write ballads, well it’s not easy, but it’s easy to write strim, strum mid-tempo crap, but it’s hard to write high energy stuff that doesn’t sound clichéd.

“So that’s what I really wanted to focus on, a more up-tempo higher energy kind of situation.” I ask him about the songwriting process, going back to Nashville to work with the likes of James House, Jerry Flowers, Jeffrey Steele and Gary Nicholson which he did on Different Shades… a couple of years ago. “Co-writing is great, because you have these guys whose sole existence is dedicated to song-craft,” he explains. “And my existence is dedicated to knowing what style that I like to play, but not exactly song-craft. So it takes me a little bit longer to figure out what we need and what we don’t need in a song.

“And ultimately, it does boil down to significantly different lyric contexts, different structure, and a little deeper writing process, which ultimately I think helps everybody.” This it does – the album is robust and strong, definitely up-tempo for the most part, lyrically on-point, sonically right in Bonamassa’s wheelhouse. It’s up-tempo blues/rock, verging on hard rock in some instances, and that’s where the man is most comfortable. As he says, it’s where he finds his voice.


This train don't stop for no one / This train got a mind of its own / This train don't wait for no one / This train, I'm gonna leave this town

This train don't show no mercy / This train doesn't have a name / This train coming down from Memphis / This train like a hurricane
-       ‘This Train’, Blues Of Desperation


In the press that accompanies this new record is all sorts of gumph about how Bonamassa is re-inventing blues/rock, and how this album is an evolution for him as an artist. Yes, it’s an evolution, it’s next level stuff, the man building on what he’s already proven he’s able to do better than most others. As far as Bonamassa “re-inventing” blues/rock though, this is merely publicity hot air designed to excite less adventurous members of the working music press.

No, this is no reinvention. What it actually is, is the mark of a man who has the genre so down pat, it’s so ingrained within his very being, that he’s able to take this basic structure and just wield it so well, to swing it around his head with reckless abandon, to squeeze it and caress it and mold it to his every whim. It’s basic blues/rock, but it’s really, really good blues/rock.

“You know, probably because I paid it no mind, [it’s an evolution],” he laughs. “I’ve written songs where I go, ‘People are gonna love this’, right? Crickets. I’ve also written records where I think we’ve done a good job, I’m not sure how people are gonna respond to it, and all of a sudden, people are… my barometer is almost 180 degrees out from what actually occurs.

“A big step I guess, ultimately, I think my surrounding cast in the last three to five years, musician-wise, since I’ve started working with them fulltime, I think my surrounding cast has forced me to either put up, or shut up. And I think that osmosis has just seeped into my pores. And I think, if I had to lay it on anything, it would be that, just keeping up with the brilliance in the room, I’ve gotta get my act together. Subtly I think, more so than before, I’ve gotten my act together.”

That’s where Blues Of Desperation is also an evolution then, Bonamassa getting his act together, in order to keep up with the musicianship he’s now surrounding himself with – drummer Anton Fig (and on this album, second drummer Greg Morrow); bassist Michael Rhodes; keys player Reece Wynans; horn players Lee Thornburg, Paulie Cerra and Mark Douthit; and Australian backing vocalists Jade McRae, Juanita Tippins and Mahalia Barnes. All have caused Bonamassa to up his game, and so the evolution comes through in his matching of their musicianship.

One might scratch their head here and wonder how Joe Bonamassa could actually up his musicianship – anyone who’s seen or heard him play will agree he’s a phenomenal guitarist, how could he step that up? It’s not the playing he’s upped though, I get the impression on talking to him, but his headspace and scope. Playing with these musicians has forced him to take off his blinkers, set in place by a slew of records, and look further outside the box. The results speak for themselves.


I fell into a burnin' ring of fire / I went down, down, down / And the flames went higher / And it burns, burns, burns / The ring of fire, the ring of fire
-       ‘Ring Of Fire’, Johnny Cash, playing through the PA prior to Bonamassa and band walking onstage at the Byron Bay Bluesfest


At various points throughout our interview, Bonamassa refers to himself as a dweeb, a traveling salesman, a curmudgeon. His self-effacive nature is actually refreshing – you see him on stage standing tall in a suit, very little stage banter, completely intent on the musical task at hand, and you think perhaps he’s a bit arrogant. He’s actually not. “I’m a curmudgeon,” he confesses with a smile. “My girlfriend tries to get me out of that, but I’m a real curmudgeon.”

He takes great pleasure in telling me a story from the day before, where a band dressed “like they’re going to a 1967 Laurel Canyon costume party” were put in their place, to his mind, when Mick Fleetwood (also playing the festival) entered the room. “Mick fucking Fleetwood,” he laughs. “He was there (in Laurel Canyon). He invented the hipster beard, but he’s not playing that guy, he’s just that guy. That authenticity is not lost on me. You’ve gotta be that guy.”

“I’m this guy,” he goes on, waving a hand over his old jeans, his plain jumper. “The guy in the suit comes out every time I have a gig, because I harken back to those old blues guys like Muddy Waters… I’m not the first guy to put a suit on, I stole the idea from Muddy Waters. You see those old pictures of him in the ‘60s and he’s got this silk suit on, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, backstage somewhere in London and you go, ‘That’s the coolest shit in the world’.

“And then I saw Clapton in ’89 when they used to call him the Armani Bluesman, and I go, ‘I don’t think that’s a bad thing, that’s awesome’. And then you see him during the day and he’s got a Fender t-shirt on, and that’s the real cat. And it was my favourite moment of the festival to see that go down, when Mick Fleetwood walks through the room, and you go, ‘There’s the Laurel Canyon guy’, because he actually invented it, you know? Ultimately, it’s not lost on me.”

Something else which isn’t lost on the blues guitar behemoth, is the fact he’s been so prolific since his 2000 debut, A New Day Yesterday. “In fifteen years, I’ve put out 33 albums,” he says with a smile. “Between the live DVDs and all the hoopla, three with Rock Candy Funk Party, four with Black Country Communion, one with Mahalia, couple with Beth Hart and a DVD, all the DVDs I’ve done, it’s been a ton of work. And we have two DVDs in the can, we have Live At The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, where we did the three Kings, and we have Live At Carnegie Hall. Thirty-five albums in 16 years, it’s nuts.”

“But in perspective, this album seems to have a bit more legs than maybe the three or four records before that,” he then says candidly. “The last time a record of mine has gotten this kind of response is when we did a record called The Ballad Of John Henry (2009), that was kinda my coming-out party. And we’ve experimented with different feels and flavours along the way… I’ve been to Greece a couple of times, a bit more Americana stuff, more horns, whereas this is more back to the basics.”

Blues Of Desperation is basics for Joe Bonamassa. Straight down the line blues/rock, a little bit of jazz in there, a few harder tracks that harken to his time with supergroup Black Country Communion. It’s an album which doesn’t apologise for this, it makes no concessions, it’s the man doing what he does best, and what his core fanbase loves most about him. And isn’t that all he can do?

He seems happy, this much isn’t in doubt. We finish up our interview as it’s drawing closer to show time. His mindset has very much shifted now and it’s time for him to shed his dweeby persona, his actual persona, and don the suit and move into the persona that most people know him for – Joe Bonamassa, guitar prodigy, blues maestro, blues/rock purveyor par excellence. This is what he brings on this new record, and even though he has done it countless times and we’ve seen it all before, it’s because it’s so real, that we’ll keep coming back.

Check out Joe Bonamassa's website here
Check our the RHYTHMS website here 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Stars & Hype - Available Now

First Time Notes On The American Deep South


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New Orleans, Part One

Newspapers read thus far: The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (West Coast Edition), The Austin American-Statesman, the Goliad Advance-Guard, The Times-Picayune.

Someone said to me at some point prior to this trip that the Faubourg Marigny district is a burgeoning bohemian area. A little way east of the French Quarter in New Orleans, it’s home to artists, hipsters and the like, small pop-up bars and artisan shops. Still gritty and real, but only in its early stages of gentrification and so not tainted.

It doesn’t seem too gentrified at first glance though. People of dubious character (not a hipster to be seen) ramble along the steaming reach of St. Claude Avenue, others sprawled outside Hank’s where we go to buy beer, leaning against the brick walls in the shade – some with flea-bitten old dogs – drinking 40s out of brown paper bags eyeing everyone else from under low-brimmed hats and ratty hair.

A little earlier, the cab from the airport had dropped us off outside our temporary digs on Mandeville Street, just off St. Claude, a long thin stretch of concrete with tiny houses packed along its sides, an auto shop on the corner. We were met by Orly, a friend of the house’s owner, who led us down the narrow path next to the house, let us in the back door and gave us some tips on where to go, what to do. I asked him if the area is safe. He thought for a bit. Essentially said just be careful.

He left us to it and we lay on the bed under the fan and thought about what to do next, whether three in the afternoon was too early to do anything. We decided to go and buy food and so found an organic supermarket up the road down the back of a yoga studio, new age medical clinics off to the side, a hip haven amongst what seems to be a wasteland.

We go from there to Hank’s then back to the house.

I sit in the tiny back garden and sip on a can of Bud and smoke a cigarette, humid, rub my feet in the grass and wonder how this’ll all pan out. The yard is long and narrow, patchy grass and overgrown bushes on the side half hiding the rusty chainlink fence. There are a few small flower pots near the back door, flowers struggling in the heat, an old strand of fairy lights looping the rail by the steps like a translucent snake, too hot to move. The yards on either side are concrete, the one on the right with a ramshackle old shed, falling down, missing its door, most of its windows.

Despite the area’s seeming desolation however, we’re only a five minute walk from the top of Frenchmen Street, which runs parallel to Mandeville, south to the edge of the Quarter and is lined with myriad tiny bars, music of all strains booming out onto the sidewalks, people wandering about with plastic cups of beer smoking and laughing. Just a regular city street in a regular city late on a Friday afternoon except the street is exceptional and the city is N’Awlins, The Crescent City, The Big Easy, so it’s all different and ribald and loose, a permanent party except you’re always watching your back, no matter how far into the situation you push yourself.

Once we’ve eaten at the house, we find our way down there, navigating along St. Claude, missing the top of Frenchmen thinking it’d be a pulsating strip like Bourbon Street and so doubling back and stepping out of a seeming war zone – cracked grey pavement, roadworks, jackhammers blowing concrete dust into the thick air –  onto a leafy, tree-lined street with small, neat houses that eventually give way to one of the most famous music strips in the world. We feel at home immediately and see The Spotted Cat and go in and sit at the bar drinking bottles of Bud listening to Andy Forest play harmonica and a bit of guitar.

As I listen I look about and try and feel it, this famous venue I’ve known of for so long, the dancing cat mural on the back wall, the myriad bills tacked up behind the bar – I see an Australian five, a ten – the green walls and dark wood bar with the lip, so’s you have to reach across and down a little to pick up your beer. Two girls walk out and one stops to take a photo of Forest playing guitar on stage, but he snaps that they don’t even know his name so don’t take no photo, just throw a dollar in the bucket.

They slink off, a self-conscious laugh. We move off after a drink not long after, throw a dollar into the bucket, out the door into the fading sunshine, left and across the road, where to next? Wherever sounds good.

The night carries on in this fashion. Chance Bushmen’s Rhythm Stompers at Bamboulas, dusty rag-time, tap-dancin’ jazz ‘n’ jive; Higher Heights at Café Negril, all funk and groove, good for dancin’, good for swingin’.

We head down to the bottom of Frenchmen at one point and onto the start of Decatur which leads into the Quarter proper and find a tiny, dark hole in the wall where we grab two seats at the end of the bar, order beers and shots of Jack Daniels. The bartenders are switching shifts, the place is open 24 hours, the clutch of people down the front are regulars. The bartender getting off is shitfaced drunk. The one coming on is a jovial gay guy who ain’t takin’ the last guy’s shit, but you can tell they’re friends. They both joke with us and it’s a comfortable little place despite the dinge and dark, the noise and the smell. Feels comfortable. I sit out the front for a smoke, on a small wooden bench, and watch a few kids doing tricks on a skateboard outside the shop next door.

We walk back to Bamboulas and sit out the front at one of their two tables and smoke more cigarettes and drink cheap beer watching the tide of people wander past, listening to snatches of conversation wondering where people are from and where they’re going.

We head home reasonably early, via the night market, back up Frenchmen and along St. Claude, slightly oblivious to the danger – is there any danger? – past the Hi Ho Lounge which has people spilling out onto the street, past another small bar blasting out some decent heavy metal.

After dark, the bohemian element is obvious. It’s almost like during the day the area belongs to the downtrodden and broke, the hungry and desperate. Once the sun goes down however, the music starts and the temperature cools and people come out to play, a bit of money in their pocket, op-shop boots and long, slim cigarettes.

We keep walking, around the corner onto Mandeville and to the relative quiet of the back garden for another beer or two, more talk, where to next, tomorrow.


We sleep late. Eventually we rouse ourselves and I have a shower and then sit out the back in the shade for bit. It’s so quiet, still. The sun beats down, not a cloud in the sky and everything is trying to soak it in, let it accentuate its colour, but it’s almost like it can’t quite get there.

There’s a sense of gloom over this place. A sense of danger just under the surface. A sense of desperation. Perhaps a hangover from Katrina, a decade ago, perhaps just the normal daily feel of a poor neighbourhood that doesn’t deign to be anything other than it is. And so it feels gloomy, scary, somewhere we shouldn’t be. The feeling sits in the pit of my stomach, a dull object in my gut like I need to shit but can’t. That feeling of being out of one’s comfort zone, a long way out. I smoke more than I usually do.

We leave the house a bit before lunchtime and head back down Frenchmen, onto Decatur towards the French Quarter. Our surroundings gentrify and the feeling lifts a little. Soon we’re thrust into the Quarter itself, its own little city, twelve-odd square blocks of sin. A man drives slowly down Toulouse Street, leaning out his window shouting verses from the bible. We see him later down by the river, standing on a busy corner, shouting his bible verses. Not to anyone, just to everyone. One man trying to make a difference. Claire asks if I think he thinks he is making a difference. I shrug, maybe. We don’t see him again all weekend.

We wander around the Quarter for a few hours, just looking and watching. There’s a college football game on this evening, Florida State, The Gators, in town to play LSU and there are fans everywhere decked out in jerseys and t-shirts. Flags are flying, it’s a fierce rivalry but the feeling seems good. So the place is full, it heaves despite the early hour, expectation is in the air. We catch bits and pieces of the game later that night. Louisiana State win by a touchdown.

By then, we’re back on Frenchmen Street, but we spend the day exploring the Quarter. Even at one in the afternoon, Bourbon is teeming, college kids wandering about in packs with fishbowls and hand grenades, huge fluoro coloured drinks of god knows what clutched in tanned hands, male and female, some already stumbling and crooked, others well on their way. Bourbon smells like vomit and young exuberance gone stale and wan. Piss and the desperate remnants of last night. Stains the back of your throat.

No one gives two shits though and the bars encourage it and the drink flows and a normal Saturday afternoon on Bourbon Street carries on. The sound from countless horn sections booms from open doorways and floats up on the vague breeze enveloping the fern-laden balconies above. The music is high-octane, designed to move your feet and fill your glass.

We sit for a while in Congo Square, somewhere a bit quieter, over in Louis Armstrong Park. The grass is green and thick and I kick off my boots and look through the info pack I’ve been left at the information centre by the media people at the tourism bureau – maps, brochures, badges, a few passes to things. We throw most of it out, but keep the bits that interest us. We watch a few homeless guys wander past. We watch a tattooed and shirtless guy trying to land various flips on his skateboard as his girlfriend sits in the sun, bored. She claps when he lands something though.

We decide to head back into the Quarter and so duck back across Nth Rampart and onto Toulouse, down towards the river. We line up outside Café du Monde, famous for its beignets, but don’t actually get in. We stand and listen to a small trad jazz combo – sax, clarinet, drum, fiddle and guitar, with a self-conscious fiddler who sings but is embarrassed.

We wander the streets and generally get a feel for the place, its old-time influence, its party prevalence, countless voices from then and now bouncing back off old stone walls, a cacophony, buildings seemingly growing out of each other, a mass of architecture climbing up from the narrow streets. French doors open onto sagging balconies above our heads. Halloween decorations festoon across front porches and around ground floor windows.

Because of the football, we find a small bar serving fifty cent oysters which we have with Cajun calamari and some local beer for a few bucks before heading back to the house, have a shower and sleep for a while, smoke a cigarette in the long, overgrown yard prior to heading back out to wherever the fancy takes us. Who knows? Not us, by no means.

We end up, after dark, in the lounge at the Hotel Monteleone which has a revolving carousel bar. It’s fancy and we order cocktails. I try not to get distracted by the football being shown on a dozen screens around the room. Claire’s heard about this place, and so we come here to seek out a bit of the opulence prevalent in parts of the Quarter and I order a sazerac because it’d be remiss of me not to given where we are.

From there we wander back to Frenchmen’s where we bar hop a little before ending up at our table outside Bamboulas, drinking and watching, listening to the BackBone Blues Band and then the Johnny Mastro Band, just soaking it all up, finally finding our feet in a city known for knocking one down.

I go inside for a beer at one point and come out in a bit and Claire has been befriended by a newly married couple from somewhere in Wisconsin who have been drinking for a few hours and so the four of us spend a couple more hours talking and watching and swapping stories and the like and it’s harmless enough for sure.

I switch to gin at some point before deciding bourbon is more appropriate and perhaps I’m talking to myself at this point, but everyone else seems to be in the same mindset and so we carry on, swapping stories, listening and watching the constant ebb and flow of human flotsam up and down the narrow sidewalks, cigarette butts in the puddle off the curb, the smell from the bins across the street mixing with weed, tobacco, stale beer and sweat in a city that doesn’t sleep, even when hungover, which one gets the impression is most every day.

They tell us stories of life in Wisconsin, and we ask questions and drinks are spilt on the rickety table. I can’t remember their names.

The foot traffic swells, a band finishes at DBAs so the pavement is full. A new one starts at a joint down the street a bit so traffic wanes. On the road itself, cab after cab passes by slowly, dodging pedestrians who should be dodging cars but are just rambling into the street to the place across the road, flicking cigarette butts and yelling to friends over the way, or up on one of the balconies above their own heads.

It’s a good time vibe, there’s no malice anywhere, just a general feeling of drunken bonhomie and friendship. People bump into you and say sorry quickly, a smile and off they go, into the night looking for God knows what. A Norwegian (so he says) man stops and starts talking and the Wisconsin woman rolls her eyes and lights another of her menthol cigarettes, and this guy tries to sell us small bottles of a homemade hangover cure he says can’t fail. We take a bottle so’s he’ll leave, throw it in Claire’s handbag.

I find it, weeks later, when we’re home and I don’t even read the label before throwing it in the bin.

Eventually, I call it and we wander home again and sit outside once more and then pack our bags as we’re moving into the Quarter tomorrow. We fall asleep a little more easily, the dull feeling in my gut not as urgent as before.

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