Guitar star is no ordinary Joe
He’s the former child prodigy who has become one of the world’s most revered guitarists. JONATHAN BARNES spoke to Joe Bonamassa as the blues-rock maestro heads for Ipswich
WHERE have all the guitar heroes gone?
Well, you can probably guess; maybe the south of France or a big house in the country. But I’m not talking about the likes of Clapton, Page or Beck. What about a new breed? Or at least anyone under the age of 40?
Step forward Joe Bonamassa. The sharp-suited master bluesman from New York state is not the only six-stringer on the circuit, but there aren’t many who could sell out the Ipswich Regent, where he’s playing on Wednesday (only the last few tickets remaining at time of going to press).
Call this 33-year-old a new kid on the block, though (reasonable enough, you’d think, when most masters of his craft are at least twice his age) and he’ll bite back. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I haven’t come out of nowhere. To sell three or four thousand tickets a night, I’ve had to work hard. I’ve recorded nine albums now; I’ve sat in the back of a van for many, many tours. I’ve been doing this for 21 years.”
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And, no, he hasn’t got his maths wrong. Having strummed his first chords at four, the young Joe was perfecting Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan licks by the time he was seven; at 12 he was opening up for blues great BB King. He spent his teenage years in the blues-rock group Bloodline before heading out alone as a singer and guitarist; since 2000 he has released a string of studio and live albums, including this year’s Black Rock, mixing his own compositions with reworkings of other artists’ songs.
Bonamassa has stayed true to his blues roots, although he admits he’s keen to move the genre on from its dusty image. “I always ask ‘what is the blues?’ Is it just stick to the old model or you should you try something new? My favourite comment is ‘I never liked the blues, but I listen to you and I like that’. I don’t know...I just say ‘I’m glad you like the CD’. I would say I’m very lucky to have the fanbase I do.”
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That following has been built up through a touring schedule of 200 shows a year; an ongoing pilgrimage that reached its ultimate destination with a sell-out show at the Royal Albert Hall last year, featuring a guest appearance from Eric Clapton; all captured for DVD.
You might think that concerts in provincial towns tend to merge into one another, but it’s likely that Bonamassa has by now typed “Ipswich” and “Regent” into Google and studied the results.
“When a tour gets closer, I do start getting down to researching the town and the venue and look at the history, to see who’s played there; who I’m following,” he says.
To give him a head start, I tell him that both The Beatles and the Stones have trodden the Regent boards. “Heh. Just upstart bands then,” he chirps. Oh, and then there’s the footage recently unearthed of a young Jimi Hendrix ripping up the stage in 1967. Now he’s interested. “Wow,” he beams. “That’s fantastic!”
Bonamassa’s October UK tour is a solo effort, albeit with a stellar backing band, but the guitarist is currently enjoying the buzz of being back in a band again. Or, I should say, a supergroup. The band, Black Country Communion, also features former Deep Purple singer-bassist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin legend John) and keyboard wizard Derek Sherinian. They released their debut record, Black Country, last month to glowing reviews.
On the day I spoke to Bonamassa (at 9.30am sharp – an hour I thought didn’t really exist for rock n’ rollers), he was in the thick of a promotional launch for the album, and clearly enjoying bouncing off his new bandmates.
“People keep asking me whether it’s weird to be back in a band, but this is the most fun I’ve had in my life,” he says. “Playing with three A-level players – A-plus-level players – it’s incredible. We call ourselves the Pinstripers, like the New York Yankees. Not to have the pressure of the band being under your name, I’m just having a blast; it’s the sheer joy of playing.”
The band, who launched the album with a secret gig in London in front of just 150 people, are planning another UK show by the end of the year – probably in the Black Country – followed by a tour next year, and they are already talking about a second album. “The band is the other part of my life now. If you’d said a year ago that I’d be in a band – let alone in a band with Glenn, Derek and Jason – I’d have said that would be crazy. But I just take every day as it comes. With the Black Country Communion album, I’ve made nine albums in ten years. The next decade I might only make two albums...”
I ask Bonamassa if he thinks he knows everything there is to know about the guitar; whether there’s anything new left to learn; if he’s still getting better.
“Always,” he insists. “I’ve got better just this week, playing with these guys. It’s a challenge. There’s always something to learn; a new riff, a new pocket; the notes you play, the notes you don’t play.”
And what the former child prodigy learns, he’s keen to pass on – and prove that the blues isn’t just the preserve of old men. Bonamassa sits on the board of the Blues Foundation – he’s the youngest member, unsurprisingly – and plays an active part in visiting schools to speak to youngsters about the blues; both its past and its future.
“I think it’s important to keep kids inspired to play the blues. If not, there’s no future generation and that big theatre full of people screaming, it doesn’t happen. I’m concentrating on making it happen.”
Whatever the future of the blues might be, there’s little doubt that Bonamassa will be big part of it. And as guitar heroes go, he’s very much the present.