Thursday, 15 September 2016

Feature - Joe Bonamassa

Published in the September/October issue of Rhythms.

BASIC BLUES
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 clich├ęd.

“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
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