INTERVIEW: Joe Bonamassa


BCC Shep Joe 25 web.jpgThe Underground Hong Kong is religiously watching the horizon for menacing signs of black blizzards, killer dust storms worse than tornados as Joe Bonamassa and his Dust Bowl Tour band do surely cometh our way, and all omens indicate they will blow Hong Kong away with their fearsome brand of pure blues blended with 70s-influenced hard rock…

by Isobel S. Saunders, with thanks to musicians Vince Lam, Helter Skelter and James Wolfe, Logo; ideas borrowed from The Rainmakers’ lyrics, Let My People Go-Go

…And so it was that on the Sixth Day, actually it was a Tuesday after lunch, Moses (the Hebrew prophet drummer and part-time supermarket greeter from Hackney West) went up to the mountain high to discover the sacred rock ’n’ roll words that had been written long ago in the sand by the Ancients:

Wop Bop A Lu bop A lop Bam Boom

Er, no, sorry…the other sacred words…

The better the Guitarist

the Longer the Name.

Thus it was ordained that the multi-talented Mr. Joe Bonamassa with his nine-letter, holy cow of a name wouldNEW 2010 PRESS SHOT web.jpg become a guitar god virtuoso; And so it has come to be that the world has witnessed the New York-born “Blues Rock Titan” thrilling audiences and jamming with British and American legendary musicians for some two decades now. The last ten years has seen the release of ten highly-commended CD albums. Pretty good considering he’s just turning 34 this May. I’ve stuffed him into my C.S.I. Exhibit A Ziploc bag of Superlative Guitarists and plan to hoof it to HITEC with the rest of the herd – i.e. happy cult-devotees plus the usual gathering of guitar geeks – to hear him play his vintage Gibson and Fender guitars on Thursday, May 12. And so we come finally, my brethren, to the end of this sermon and thus we can now understand from this parable why it was that Brothers of Roadkill singer, keyboardist, near-zippo guitar skills, forcibly celibate Adrian Fu, with his shameful and piddley two-letter surname, screamed “Bona-whaaaaaaaaaaaa?!” at his first encounter with it. Jealousy is a sin, Fu. Go in peace. And now for this morning’s hymn, Come As You Are. Nirvana’s version.

Behold and commune! The Word is spreading and the gospel truth is go-get and see Bonamassa and his rock band as you won’t hear guitar playing like this again until Clapton, Waters, Blackmore and the greats swing past again. And even better than forking out for tickets yourself, if you read our interview below there’s a chance for you to win some. So by Divine Grace – or sheer feckin’ gambler’s luck, you may just get in for free! Yee har!

BCC Wolvgig 07web.jpgJoe Bonamassa’s touring band is drummer Tal Bergman, Aussie keyboardist Rick Melick and bassist Carmine Rojas, all seasoned musicians with solid names in the industry. It therefore follows that the band has a cool fan base, attracting professional musicians who want to see and hear the amazing riffs played in all their technical greatness and to check out a neo-traditionalist’s approach to ace songwriting. The Ballad of John Henry was categorised as one of the 50 Greatest Riffs of the Decade by Total Guitar Magazine who polled readers last year about post-1999 music. Bonamassa came in at a very respectable #12 after contemporaries like the White Stripes, Muse, Queens of the Stone Age and Lamb of God. Fans comprise also the more eclectic blues aficionados and dedicated alternative rock/ hard rock listeners who don’t want important traditions and all that is associated in that music history – including our own complex, personal histories spun from intersections with this music somewhere, some time unforgotten – to be lost or eclipsed by the next lame music industry money-spinner. It may be slightly disconcerting for all concerned, and no doubt, for his hardworking P.R. company, to find out the band’s only gig in this filthy lucre city is sandwiched in amongst highly-commercial dross, like Bieber, Kenny G and Riverdance. But then again… maybe not. After conversing with Bonamassa, even for a brief time, you glean a capriciousness in him, a very likeable directness, even sharpness at times, leaving you with the sense he’ll just damn-well deal with anything adverse or oblique booted his way. He doesn’t suffer fools easily – which is a bit unfortunate because he got me as an interviewer – because he’s just, well, really clever. He’s still that clever kid you see pictures of on stage trying his very honest-best for B.B. King, he’s intuitive, often predicting where my questions were going, and he’s quick to pick up on anything playful.

Mainstream life in Hong Kong has a numbing superficiality about it and I constantly put two jacked-off fingers up to its numerous tedious norms, so I think it’s an excellent sort of corky to see Bonamassa writing up the weird shit that happens to him in his CD liner notes. His blacklist “Random Things in the World To Avoid “in the black rock CD points out the usual deceit and stupid people we all have to confront at some time and it’s really not difficult to relate to when he writes: “Cypress Airline baggage handlers” and “hotels with special ‘Pardon Our Mess’ rates”. Naturally, he was warned about Hong Kong’s from-Hell dentists racketeering with their blessed medical boards and indemnity insurers…

Joe Bonamassa gave The Underground Hong Kong some of his time after a hectic 14-hour day, which had includedBCC Wolvgig 92 web.jpg playing as an ensemble musician in a recording session ‘for a friend’. He didn’t disclose who, but Bonamassa’s collaborations in the past have always been mightily impressive – B.B. King, Eric Clapton, John Hiatt, Jeff Beck, Robert Cray and others – so I’m guessing when this project finally becomes known it’ll be another very cool accomplishment. From our brief conversation, it’s apparent he’s extremely proud of his ‘other’ newer band, the UK-based Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), Jason Bonham (Foreigner, UFO; offspring of drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin) and Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Alice in Chains, Alice Cooper). The BCC project is also being overseen by Kevin Shirley, the near-Immortal producer with one exultant CV that includes The Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, HIM, Journey and Aussie bands Baby Animals, Silverchair, The Screaming Jets, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Angels and Cold Chisel. The ‘black country’ refers to the old coal mining and industrial midlands of England where Glenn Hughes and Jason Bonham hail from. I noted Bonamassa couldn’t help mentioning his gorgeous Scots gal, Sandi Thom. He corrected me quite deliberately when I lumped her in with musicians he had collaborated with. No, she was his girlfriend. But that’s neither here nor there, he added awkwardly and changed the subject. Kind of touching, seeing as neither of us seem the sentimental type.

Our interview, written with the help of blues-rock guitarist and vocalist Vince Lam from Helter Skelter, had been re-scheduled three times in one day. The man, dog-tired, still faithfully called us in person late one April Californian Friday night. As with all his interviews, he had something interesting and genuine to say…

Dust Bowl Cover_FINAL_5X5 web.jpgUGHK: We’re just looking at your Dust Bowl World Tour dates. Actually it looks like two world tours! You kicked off in the US including the dust bowl of Oklahoma itself and plenty of badlands locales, like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. You’ve just played Canada and next, Europe, Asia, Australia, back to Europe and the UK, and the States again. How does it feel playing the blues in say, Tucson Arizona and then, whammo! you’re in Trondheim or Adelaide?

Joe Bonamassa: It doesn’t kind of matter. It’s the same. It’s not a big deal. Audiences are the same…y’know they clap… and they react the same way to the music.


Joe Bonamassa: Not if we do it right. We do three months and have a bit of a break. I have a great project, Black Country Communion I’m working on then. Then we’re back on the tour. I think we are paced really well.

Playing live is an opportunity for a guitarist like you to stretch out in your solos, much more than you can on CD. When you play your solos live, where do you draw your inspiration from?

Joe Bonamassa: Solos are a channeling of innermost thoughts. A snapshot. A snapshot of a moment.

You’ve said in a previous interview that as a kid you learnt to play guitar because you “wanted to copy the great music” you heard (i.e. Cream, Free, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, etc). Does this simple but excellent reason of just doing something because you like it still inspire you today, despite having evolved into much more complex human musically?

Joe Bonamassa: It’s still the same music that I like – Cream, Free, Jeff Beck Group – blues rock and the British Invasion. It’s still the same for me. It’s as fresh as when I first heard it! It’s my favourite music and it’s great -and happy- to do!

You also promised your very young self when you decided you wanted to be a guitar player after seeing the Cream Farewell Concert on video that you would also play at the Royal Albert Hall.

Joe Bonamassa: I did that!

You did that! In 2009. So what’s your next great, seemingly-insurmountable goal in life?

Joe Bonamassa: I have nooooo idea!

What about small achievements, like cleaning out the refrigerator vegetable drawer?

Joe Bonamassa: (Laughs) Yeah…I reorganise the guitar room!Joe Bonamassa Hammersmith2010  52web.jpg

A lot has been documented about your younger self as a child prodigy and of your wonderful experiences with some of the most influential artists in the blues and rock genre. Now you’re a teacher yourself in guitar seminars and workshops. What did you learn from the amazing people who taught you or the people you collaborated with later in life (such as John Hiatt, Robert Cray, Sandi Thom and Eric Clapton etc etc) that you’re now going to pass on?

Joe Bonamassa: Well, Sandi Thom is my girlfriend… But that’s neither here nor there… You learn from everyone and from every experience. You learn from bad experiences as much as from good ones. The bad experiences don’t happen very often, but you learn from them as much.

With all the lineups you’ve worked and toured with, all the musicians seem to have a great connection and musical chemistry on stage. Do you ‘push’ each other technically and musically on every song?

Joe Bonamassa: Yes, absolutely. We throw stuff at each other all the time. It’s a real conversation we have up there.

Do you/ the band and/ or your producer decide when a song’s ready?

Joe Bonamassa: Yes, it’s Kevin Shirley (Bonamassa’s producer).

Do you have any interests beyond music? Fitness? Pets? Films? Books?

Joe Bonamassa: No, I hate working out! I can’t have a pet, or a plant! I’m away all the time. I’ll kill it! I like history or rather, nostalgia. Vintage Ferraris, wine collecting and I like books. My real passion is guitars.

I ask about films because they’ll probably make a film about your life one day.

Joe Bonamassa: (Laughs) It won’t be interesting! I’m pretty straight-laced!

Mike Mills from REM said in an interview, perhaps humorously, that he’s always found it hard to both play guitar and sing really well at the same time. Does singing and playing come easily to you?

Joe Bonamassa: I find it very difficult as well. The voice definitely comes with experience. Yeah, the voice.

Is it something you have to work on?

Joe Bonamassa: Every day!

What’s the worst or funniest mistake someone has made with your name? …Apart from the stupid in our office who wrote Joe ‘Mombassa’. Great if you’re playing in Kenya!

Joe Bonamassa: Yeah, right! Probably the pronunciation of ‘Born-ner-muh-sah’ really varies. And don’t call me ‘John’!

Oh noooo! We did that, too! When I pointed out to our office guy that what he had written wasn’t how you spelled your name, he crossed out ‘Joe’ and wrote ‘John’! I’m so sorry!

Joe Bonamassa RAH 116 (2) web.jpgJoe Bonamassa: So you’ve done both worst things?! Oh, so, you massacred my name!!!

It’s the last question and crazy question time! You get to ask the question you’d like to be asked.

Joe Bonamassa: What famous blues singer do I share a birthday with?

>>To win tickets to Joe Bonamassa’s gig at HITEC on May 12, select the correct answer and email The Underground Hong Kong on before 10th May 2011

Is it?…

1. John Lee Hooker 2. B.B. King 3. Howlin’ Wolf

4. Bessie Smith 5. Blind Willie McTell 6. Robert Johnson

7. Muddy Waters 8. Big Joe Williams

As our allotted interview time too quickly expired, I became as bold as love, as Jimi Hendrix would have it. Yep, as brazen as a thief in broad daylight I put in a request direct to the man to ‘play the loud ones’, like Blue and Evil, at the Hong Kong show. Sure, there was nothing wrong with the pretty ones, like Bird on a Wire, Happier Times, or the fun ones, Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter, but I wanted all the loud ones! And my cheekiness was rewarded… Yee-har!

Joe Bonamassa: It’s gonna be wild and loud!


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