Blues star heads to the region
Ahead of his Saturday, July 2 headlining appearance at St Catherine's Hospice's Symphony at the Tower, US guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa talks about his UK blues influences and much more
Joe Bonamassa has not long finished his latest tour on home soil, involving 20-plus dates in barely a month, taking in – as he put it – ‘all the great metropolitan cities of the United States of America’.
That came on the back of a couple of Australian festival dates, more shows in England and Germany, and before that back home, including those heading out on the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship from Florida, a Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea showcase.
The latest gigs included a brief detour to see his folks in upstate New York, ‘discreetly’ turning up outside their home with tour crew, trucks and all, checking all was well following his Dad’s recent heart attack.
Joe assured me Len - who runs the Bonamassa Guitars shop in New Hartford - was on the mend now, and family is clearly key to a lad encouraged to play guitar at the age of five.
There’s an illuminating interview online from 1989 - when Joe was 12 and guesting with the likes of BB King and Stephen Stills, and already in a band on the Syracuse blues circuit – where Len talks about his boy mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan solos before he was seven.
More than a quarter of a century later, 39-year- old Joe still thrills audiences around the world, as will be the case for those lucky enough to witness a tour warm-up gig at Liverpool’s Cavern Club next week.
This leg of the tour then kicks off properly with two nights in Dublin, before a Saturday, July 2 date at Hoghton Tower, Joe headlining the second of three nights of the annual Symphony at the Tower fundraiser for Lostock Hall-based St Catherine’s Hospice.
So is Joe excited about the prospect of those dates and the Glasgow, Bristol, Greenwich and Newark shows that follow before he moves on to mainland Europe?
“You know, until we start rehearsing … no - because I don’t know how it’s gonna come out. Truth be told, I never know how this stuff’s gonna turn out until I start rehearsing.
“It was the same with the Three Kings and Muddy Wolf thing. When we do these kind of gigs, I’ve no idea how it’s gonna sound. If it sounds like ****, I’m not excited!
“It keeps you hungry, but also makes me wonder, ‘Why did I sign up for this in the first place? And as I get older, that question’s more and more prevalent in my mind.”
The Three Kings tribute show paid homage to blues legends Albert, BB and Freddie King, while the Muddy Wolf shows saluted the music of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.
But this time, Joe’s honouring three UK blues revival guitar legends that reminded America of its music legacy and debt to those original artists, his British Blues Explosion show citing Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
With that in mind, it makes sense that he gets up and running at a venue a short distance from the original Cavern Club, not only important for links to the ‘60s Merseybeat scene, but also for hosting many UK artists who shone a spotlight on US blues - a special venue for someone so steeped in that whole scene.
“Yes, but I’m going to play my own stuff - I’m not going to be pinned to having to do this tribute to my three guitar heroes.”
You could never accuse Joe of being a copyist. I’m guessing it’s more about the spirit.
“As I went through the set-list for my tribute to Clapton, Beck and Page, there were covers, but their own versions. That’s the difference.
“It’s a fine line between being a cover band and something else, at least making a go at it. That to me’s more important than anything else.”
He’s also set to be commemorated (with a special brick) on the Cavern Club Wall of Fame, joining The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Who, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Albert Lee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cream, Thin Lizzy. Georgie Fame, Gene Vincent, Rod Stewart, Alexis Korner, Spencer Davis Group … I’ll stop there and let him carry on.
“The whole thing with the Cavern Club was just something my bass player Michael Rhodes and I talked about. We had a six-day rehearsal schedule and rather than just six days in a rehearsal room the idea was to do a small club gig.
“Michael suggested the Cavern and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll see if they want us there. And they were gracious enough to accept our little offer.”
It’s a 300-capacity venue, for someone used to much larger crowds. Is there a bit of Joe that still prefers the intimate sweaty clubs to big arenas?
“Every once in a while you want to see the crowds, and in a big gig you don’t see the crowd at all. You’ve got lights in your face and may see one or two rows, but that’s about it.
“But the problem with the small gigs is, it’s so loud! You lose your hearing, and we don’t know how to play soft!”
Joe’s said before, ‘If it wasn’t for certain British musicians of the early ‘70s, the blues may well have never have exploded into rock music as we know it today, and indeed may have passed into history.’ Can he enlarge on that?
“We’re keeping the set-list for this show very blues-centric, all pre-1970. You really run the risk of becoming a cover band, and that’s not what I signed up for.
“It’s a tribute versus being a cover band. We’re covering tunes they covered, such as an Otis Rush song The Yardbirds played. That’s the idea.
“They repackaged the blues in a very interesting way, and that was very influential here. That’s why artists were so enthralled with them in the early ‘70s. It was so fresh and new.
“Even though Otis Rush was playing gigs in Chicago at the time, it was this weird thing where they were covering artists we took for granted and packing arenas out.
“Now, here I am paying tribute to them, so it’s ironic on several fronts.”
It’s not just about Beck, Clapton and Page, Joe having highlighted before now the impact of Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher, and Humble Pie too, and a ‘certain sophistication to their approach’.
And like those acts, he, too, aims to redefine the blues, drawing on the modern rather than seeing blues music as some distant historic art form.
“If you don’t try and do that, it’s very, very boring.”
His latest album, Blues of Desperation, is a fine example, Joe proving – if he needed to – he’s no one-trick pony.
Take for instance the more laid-back, reflective Drive, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mark Knopfler or Emmylou Harris album.
Then there’s good old blues stonker No Good Place for the Lonely, a harder Led Zep vibe on the title track, and an almost Paul Carrack-like daytime radio feel to The Valley Runs Low.
With How Deep This River Runs there’s a more soulful undercurrent, there’s a suggestion of Tom Waits on Livin’ Easy, and a classic late ‘50s/early ‘60s Freddie King vibe on closing track What I’ve Known For a Very Long Time.
“It’s like a set-list. You don’t wanna hear the same song over and over again, so you get the light and shade. You’ve got to cut it with something or it becomes pretty samey and the subtleties get lost. That’s why my records are a bit eclectic.”
There are still plenty of traditional blues references though - the ’proverbial trains, mountains, valleys’, ‘heartbreak and loneliness’, storming opener This Train a fine example. What is it about his on-going partnership with producer Kevin Shirley that works?
“It’s twofold. He challenges the norm. He’s not one of those producers who says, ‘OK, we’ve accomplished this’. He starts at zero.”
This album took just a few days to put together. How much of it was sketched out before he reached the studio?
“We start at zero every time and just hope we make a good album.”
Joe’s studio band is the group we’ll see on his latest visit, and he clearly thrives off the live aspect of making records. Is this his best LP yet and closest to where he wants to be, or just an indication of where he is right now?
“The thing about all records is that they’re just snapshots of where you are in your life and career.”
Going back to his roots, what turned his Dad on to the UK blues revivalists in the first place?
“Oh, he was just a young Zeppelin fan, a Rory Gallagher fan, and a Crosby, Stills and Nash fan. He loved all those classic records - like any of us.”
Joe got to achieve a dream playing with Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009. Who was proudest – him or his Dad?
“I think it was him. I didn’t have time to reflect. I haven’t had time to reflect on that to this day. It was a once in a lifetime experience. You can never recreate that.”
He’s worked with many iconic figures – from Stephen Stills and Buddy Guy to Steve Winwood and Gregg Allman. That’s a musician’s dream, isn’t it?
“Oh yeah, especially for a guy who’s just a fan.”
Joanne Shaw Taylor also appears at Hoghton Tower and two more shows. Seeing as Joe has his Black Country Communion offshoot band, it seems apt he has a UK support from our own Black Country, now based between Birmingham and Detroit.
Was Joanne – discovered at age 16 by Eurythmics guitarist and music mogul Dave Stewart – a personal choice?
“She’s been a good friend for almost 10 years. We needed an opening act as we wanted to play in the dark, and it doesn’t get dark until 9.30, so needed someone on earlier.
“It was a no-brainer! She’s a superstar in waiting. I really think she’s going to be - in the next 24 or 36 months - a household name.”
While he hasn’t yet hit 40, 11 of Joe’s 15 albums - in barely a dozen years - have topped the Billboard blues charts, all of them having gone top-10. That turnaround rate suggests he’s not one to rest on his laurels. There’s even a little radio work, too. Does he prefer a punishing schedule?
“I used to. It’s not like that any more. Now I appreciate not having to do much. I like to play my gig then go home. I want to be able to not have to work 24-7 on different things’.
“This will be the last tribute show, for no other reason than I don’t have any more ideas.”
It’s been 27 years since he opened for BB King. Did he realise at that impressionable age how much of a big deal that was?
“I did realise that. Every time I played with the guy was a huge deal.”
Did you get a good look at his beloved guitar, Lucille?
“He had so many of them. It wasn’t like there was one particular one.”
Joe has a mighty collection of guitars himself, such as Rosie, his crimson ‘72 Fender Stratocaster. Are they all named?
“Maybe 10 or 12, but sometimes I bought them with names. That’s a blues folklore thing.”
Joe also runs the non-profit Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, funding scholarships and providing music education resources to schools in need. Is that a little payback?
“The whole idea was to give back to the kids. If you don’t give back and put instruments in their hands you run the risk of having no scene at all.”
While playing heavy rock with Black Country Communion and jazz-funk with Rock Candy Funk Party, Joe always comes back to the blues. And in the words of the opening track of Blues of Desperation, ‘This train don’t stop for no one’. Is he as fired up today as 16 years ago, recording his debut album?
“I feel so much more confident as an artist these days than back in the day. I don’t look back on my records and go, ‘Man, I wish I was 22’. I really don’t.
“We live in a time when youth and inexperience is celebrated like they have all the ****ing answers – which they don’t! I was young and stupid at one point.
“Now everything is marketed to them. As soon as you turn 35 they’ll throw you away, because I can listen to some ****ing 22-year- old telling me how the world works.
“I can tell you how the world works - once you become 35 and grow up, you actually have things called bills, and your parents don’t support you. So check that out!
“That generation’s gonna get a reality check very soon, especially Americans, with this sense of entitlement and lack of work ethic. You just throw your hands up …”
On a similar subject, it seems that America has a madman in waiting in the shape of a certain Republican Party presidential candidate.
“You know of any flats available in London? I’ll put a sale sign on my house for $1 and I’ll come over!”
Well, make sure you vote first.
“This is the thing. This is my attitude on the whole thing. We did it to ourselves. There’s your democracy. If you do it to yourself, you can’t complain. It is what it is.”
With that Joe was on to another call, but he’ll be with us soon enough, so if you live near Hoghton it might be a good time to put a sale board outside your house. See if you get an offer.
Joe Bonamassa’s Salute to the British Blues Explosion visits Hoghton Tower on Saturday, July 2, with special support from Joanne Shaw Taylor.