By Jeb Wright
Blues of Desperation is the new album from Joe Bonamassa, released in March of this year. I don’t know if there has been much ‘desperation’ in Joe’s career, but Joe has been hungry, struggled, and has had to personally negotiate a lot of twists and turns in the early years of his solo career. Backed by a great band, manager, producer and his loyal fans, Joe is taking the time to create quality music.
If you haven’t seen Bonamassa ‘live’, just do it. Check the website, and find a show near you. I don’t care if you like Classic Rock or the Bee Gees, you will come away from the nearly 2 hour show wondering what just hit you. One might think they walked in to a Gibson and Fender ‘Guitar Show’ (as his axes are amazing), but in short order you will realize you are witnessing something special… the tunes ooze of authenticity, then pick up speed, then the solo starts to simmer and comes to a boil… a frenzy of melodic notes come back to a point of resolution backed by a stellar core band and horn section. At the end of the tune, you are drained as a listener, you lean over to your buddy and you are about to say, “That was insane… UN f$%^ing believable…” and then you realize the next song is about to start and there are 20 more to go…. prepare to be amazed.
The phone rang and Joe picked up the phone. Classic Rock Revisited had a little chat with this young Blues-master… here are the bits we can print.
Jeb: The first interview we did together was when “Miss You Hate You” came out.
Joe: That was fifteen or sixteen years ago.
Jeb: The first time I saw you perform live was in a Wichita, Kansas bar. You had Joe Lynn Turner’s guys as your backing band.
Joe: That’s right.
Jeb: As a fan, I go way back to your earlier days and I admire your talent. In every one of my album reviews that I have written, I have given you this one piece of criticism: You make this look too easy, man.
Joe: [laughter] Trust me, when I’m on stage it is much harder than it looks. Sometimes you’ve got to hang on for dear life.
Jeb: With Blues of Desperation you are, once again, a songwriting machine. After all the albums you have created so far, do you ever wonder why the ‘creative well’ has not gone dry?
Joe: The work that I’ve put into it has paid off. When I play the new songs live they are as strong as anything that I’ve ever done. They hold up in the gig and the fans really like them, too. That is always a good sign.
Jeb: You make sure the new stuff does not send the live crowd to the bathroom and the beer line.
Jeb: You have built a loyal fan base to where you could potentially sing and play the phone book and your fans would love it.
Joe: There has never been a radio hit. My albums come out and they do 200,000 copies in 18 months. It is not a platinum album, but for an independent label to bang out that many albums is great. Worldwide we will do almost a million, but it is a big world.
Jeb: Somehow you have been able to mix the musical / creative world with a strong business sense. Not having a business sense has been the downfall of many an artist.
Joe: Roy Weiss, my manager, and I go back 25 years. His business strategy was to build a high end brand thing. We’ve been very protective of that. We very rarely do festival dates and very rarely do we play outside of our own sandbox. Over the course of ten years I am seeing deals done with major labels and major concert promoters that marginalize someone’s brand. You’re starting to see it now... Next year all Live Nation concerts will be streamed live on YouTube.
On paper it makes Millennials shout from the rooftops about how great they are. Truth be told it is like handing an artist a shovel, a plot of land and a gun. They are not only going to knock you out but they are going to make you dig your own grave first. The article I read showed that the bands are all excited about it. That is some good Kool-Aid.
Jeb: You have a unique background, starting guitar at age 4 and opening for B.B. King at age 12. You were a just a kid and people were very impressed with you.
Joe: A lot of artists… they ask me, “Do you have any advice for me?” I tell them to always bet on yourself. Nobody else is going to bet on you. If you bet on yourself and people see that you’ve bet on yourself then people tend to support you. You’ve got to be able to, musically. All of the business talk is one thing; you have to shut that side of the brain off and become a musician.
Musically, my theory is that you’ve always got to go out there and play with fire. Play like it is your last show and make them notice you. That has not changed in my entire career, twenty-seven years on. I have to go out and make an impression. During those lean years in the early 2000s when you saw me in Wichita, Kansas in that little bar... I look back at those times and it was a lot of fun. It was a struggle, but we were working towards something. At that time our backs were against the wall on every show of every tour. We didn’t have enough money to get from Point A to Point B. Now, I have four tour busses and two semi-trucks. That is self-made, you know.
Jeb: Blues of Desperation is another amazing record. When Kevin Shirley and you decide it is time to create a new album, how does the concept move forward?
Joe: Kevin and I have tried a lot of different things over the years. We’ve done acoustic stuff and we’ve done heavy rock with Black Country Communion. We are about to do that again. We’ve done country, Americana kind of stuff… what we’re best at is big, sludgy blues rock… songs like “Blues of Desperation.” We are really good at big, sludgy blues rock. Sometimes we are self-loathing blues rock producers. Once we get into it then those songs flow out so easily. It is just in our nature.
Jeb: Off this latest release, the smooth ballad “The Valley Runs Low” is one of my favs.
Joe: That’s a good song. I had that chorus in my head for a while. I’m a sucker for Ry Cooder. I love Ry and I think he’s a national treasure.
Jeb: How did you end up with Kevin Shirley as a producer?
Joe: My manager Roy was talking to somebody about how we needed a new direction. We were flat-lining a little bit back then. I made a decent record called Had to Cry Today but it was not a great record. We needed a new producer. We needed a B12 shot. Someone told him to call Kevin Shirley. He said, “You know, if we are going to do this then you have to trust me as I have your best interests in mind. You should know I am also a control freak.” I said, “Kevin, I trust you and I have no interest in producing a record.” He goes, “Perfect.”
Jeb: If Kevin was not producing you, I would feel weird about it.
Joe: That’s the thing, you don’t know what to expect. It was just a happy accident.
Jeb: Does Kevin ever push you to musically stretch out?
Joe: All of the time. All musicians have a default setting. The default setting is lazy. Kevin’s job is to make sure that I’m not lazy.
Jeb: We have to talk a bit about Black Country Communion. I never thought you guys as a group would make another recording, as the band split rather badly.
Joe: In the beginning I was very upfront with them that I was happy to get the band going, but that it was not going to be my full time job. I had spent a lifetime building up a solo career. Long story short, it kind of frayed about there for a while. About two months ago I reached out to all of them and I said, ‘It has been five years since our last gig and life is too short to hold a grudge. I love all of you guys.” I didn’t expect responses, I just wanted to get that off of my chest. Within an hour I got responses from them all. I said, “Let’s rock. Let’s make an album.”
Jeb: During your young career, it seems you’ve played alongside with everyone... Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Buddy Guy, Paul Rodgers… the list goes on and on. Is there anyone that would intimidate you to share a stage with?
Joe: Just about everybody. I was very nervous playing with Eric Clapton. Jeff Beck would be very intimidating. I haven’t been on stage with him yet. I was on stage with Steve Winwood, which was very intimidating. You do find that the better people are, the nicer they are. That’s why BB King was so nice. He knew he was a bad-ass. He has a quiet confidence about him.
The first person in the room that tells you they are the greatest is the weakest one in the room. The one that just sits quietly and just plays is the one you have to worry about. The quiet ones listen to everyone talk and then they say, “Here is what I’ve got.” That is so true.
Jeb: As you know, Rory Gallagher had an incredible musical legacy… and you got to play his ’61 Fender Strat, his main axe of 30 years… I am so jealous that you got to play Rory Gallagher’s guitar. That one makes me envy you so much!
Joe: Oh, I got to play it twice!
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