The American caught up with the blues rock superstar to talk about his new album, festivals, and – what else? – guitars
Joe Bonamassa's new album, Different Shades of Blue, was released in September on Provogue in various versions including a limited edition CD including 64–page Hardcover Digibook, 180 gram black vinyl, and a picture disc. How is it different to his previous work?
"There are no covers, and I had a hand in writing everything along with some really great co–writers. It's something I've owned the fans for a very long time. We have an a cappella song and an instrumental version of a Ray Charles tune. I wanted to write a song with Robben Ford so we did 'Heartache Follows Me Wherever I Go', and I wanted to write a song like Little Feat so you get 'Trouble Town'."
The clue's in the album's title. It's impressionist blues, like 19th century French painters, different styles of the Blues but seen through Bonamassa's eyes. 'Oh Beautiful' starts like a field recording of an old Son House track, Joe's voice standing alone before a '70s blues rock guitar crunches in. 'Love Ain't A Love Song' is New Orleans funk, 'Living On The Moon' big band R&B, while 'Never Give All Your Heart' sounds like Free playing with Pete Townshend, 'I Gave Up Everything for You, 'Cept the Blues' allies a Kansas City swagger to a Stevie Ray Vaughan shuffle and the title track is just plain epic. And it all works.
Does he feel that although he's recognised as a blues musician, he can go beyond those limits? "It's gotta be blues–based. I dunno, I'm just a guitarist."
As well as Beck Joe has always cited his influences as including other British and Irish guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore, Peter Green, and Eric Clapton. What was it about them that inspired the young American? "It was louder, heavier and faster!," he replies without missing a beat. "The blues I was listening to at the time was mostly that Hubert Sumlin Chicago–meets–Texas shuffle kind of thing." Joe plays a shuffle riff on a guitar that's sitting in his lap – is he ever without a six–string? "That kinda thing. Then I heard that big heavy sound, I thought that's the kind of blues I like. I was about eight. And I've played with a lot of them now – I've checked most of my heroes off the list. Clapton, Jack Bruce... sadly I wasn't around for Rory Gallagher, rest in peace. The only person I'm missing is Jimmy Page."
At 37, he's young in blues terms. "November 8th this year I will have been 25 years in the business. Some would say that's worthy of a silver pen, others that I'm a crazy glutton for punishment. I was twelve when I played on–stage with BB King in 1990 and I'd been playing for a year before that."
In 1990, a lot of people listening to guitar–based music would have been into LA–style poodle rock. "LA–style poodle rock? I like that! [laughs] I live close to the Whiskey and the Rainbow and in 2014 a lot of people still resemble that remark." But why did the Blues grab him? "Because it wasn't that. I wasn't supposed to like it. I was supposed to like Ratt and all those bands, and much as I respect and like the guys from that era that I know, that was pop music at the time and pop was the enemy. I don't even know what pop is now – it's a cat with a MacBook Pro and a turntable."
How did Joe come to play with BB King? "When you're a twelve–year–old from a small town in upstate New York [New Hartford]who plays Blues, you get a lot of media coverage. I fact many ex–girlfriends have seen a television piece of me from back then that's online, and they've told me, you haven't matured at all since then in fact you've retrograded! [laughs]. I'm fine with that. I have the worst case of ADD in the world, but it helps in my job. That's why I switch subject, switch guitars... "
Joe plays a whole range of guitars, from Gibson Les Pauls and 335s through Fenders. "I suppose my calling card is the Bona–byrds I did with Gibson, a Thunderbird headstock on a Les Paul. It gives people something to talk about – 'Wow, look at that crazy looking dude playing crazy sounding blues on that crazy looking guitar!' I'm like PT Barnum. Some cats come at you with a real negative tone, trying to poke holes in your story. I go, here's the deal. I'm not in the guitar–playing business, I'm not in the singing business, I'm not in the songwriting business, I'm certainly not in the good–looks business, I create a spectacle for two–an–a–half hours and for some reason, knock on wood (sorry Terry!), it works on some level."
Joe's a fast moving guy, always busy. "I added up all the pieces in the catalog the other day and it's 31 – fifteen solo studio albums, DVDs, side projects, in fourteen years. The live DVDs add a face, unfortunately [laughs], to the sound. And music sounds different every night. It's a road thing. At Calling we'd just done fifteen gigs in twenty days, it was the last show of the tour." The American caught Joe that night, supprting Aerosmith at the London Calling festival in June. "That was a great gig. Our fortunes were much better than at Download – that was our uber–rockstar moment because we took a private jet in for Download but we couldn't use our own gear! I would have gone Ryanair if I could use my own head! We had a shit backline – it wasn't our best day ever. But at Calling we had our own wedges, all our own gear – I exorcised the demons! And Aerosmith were the business. I'd never seen them live before. I know Brad Whitford 'cos he played on one of my albums, and after the gig I said, dude, have mercy on us young folk! It was just one hit after the next – those guys were rockin', powers of freakin' nature – and in the same keys as the originals."
You expect deeply impressive technique from Joe, and many people describe him as a great technical player, but at Calling he seemed to be particularly into the music. What sportspeople call being 'in the zone'.
"I don't know why I get the 'technical' rap. Maybe because I play fast. Maybe somebody started saying it on the internet... By the way, I have decided to accept that everything you read on internet forums is true, well thought out and written without any malice or jealousy whatsoever!"
Every guitarist should listen to Joe's webcast Pickup Radio [www.thepickupradio.com] in which he and Matt Abramovitz gas about axes – particularly enjoyable is the "Name That Guitar" segment in which Matt plays three recordings and asks Joe to identify the guitars. Most often Joe can name not only the guitar used, but also the amps, the pedals, the recording engineer and the street address of the studio! The show is just one of Joe's many activities – he also runs his own record label, J&R Adventures and slick marketing, with his own merchandise like JB–branded guitars, straps and slides – does he like the business side of things as well as the creative? "We recently hit a new high – or low! – we offered a BonaSummer Pack: you got a barbecue apron, cooking utensils and a Frisbee! A lot of artists are in the music business, but they stop at the first word. You gotta make more than you spend."
Joe also founded the Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation, a non–profit that promotes the heritage of the blues to the next generation, funds music scholarships, and aims to supplement the loss of music education in public schools. "You'll never get a blanker stare than when you ask a roomful of people for money for music education for kids. You get 'Why do kids need music?' Well, they do better in math, in science, they're generally not on the street stealing stuff..."
Finally, what's the best thing about being Joe Bonamassa?
The best thing about being Joe Bonamassa? Good question! ...I get free guitar picks in any guitar store I go into!
Joe is playing four concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo, London on March 17th, 19th, 20th & 21st 2015.