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Joe Bonamassa

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Every so often, a blues-rock guitarist/singer comes out of the shadows (ERIC CLAPTON, JIMI HENDRIX, JOHNNY WINTER, STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN, et al), and JOE BONAMASSA was up there with the best of them. Not only has his solo career blossomed without the need for a single, far less a hit one, his albums of ever increasing sales have rocketed the man into superstardom. Move along fellow prodigies KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, JONNY LANG and JOHN MAYER.
Born May 8, 1977, New Hartford, New York, and a child prodigy since the age of 4, when he was given his first guitar by his parents, he was soon learning the techniques of both the aforementioned VAUGHAN and HENDRIX. Joe was destined for even greater things after he hooked up with mentor Danny Gatton, and soon afterwards, aged only 12, he opened for another great influence and legend, B.B. KING. On a subsequent sojourn to a Fender guitar gathering on the other side of America, “Smokin’ Joe” Bonamassa befriended progenies Berry Oakley Jr. (son of the late ALLMAN BROTHERS bassist), drummer Erin Davis (son of MILES DAVIS) and rhythm guitarist Waylon Krieger (son of The DOORS’s Robby), who were in the process of forming a new act with veteran Lou Segreti as their keyboard player; Warren Haynes of GOV’T MULE made a guest appearance.
The aptly-named Bloodline soon took to the road in 1994 (supporting the likes of LYNYRD SKYNYRD and TESLA), although an eponymous album, BLOODLINE {*4}, failed to kick-start an already doomed timespan. There was airplay for opener `Stone Cold Hearted’ (a mainstream rock hit), but basically other group-penned songs were weak, derivative and centred around the powering talent of their lead guitarist; only Joe and Berry found subsequent success, the latter being part of Blue Floyd, alongside moonlighting members of GOV’T MULE.
Licking his wounds from his first band enterprise, BONAMASSA emerged from numerous session work in 2000 with the Tom Dowd-produced A NEW DAY YESTERDAY {*8}; a titled inspired by his rendition of the JETHRO TULL track. The fact that it garnered five other covers (RORY GALLAGHER’s `Cradle Rock’, FREE’s `Walk In My Shadows’, AL KOOPER’s `Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do (For A Woman Like You)’, ALBERT KING’s `Don’t Burn Down That Bridge’ and Warren Haynes’ contribution `If Heartaches Were Nickels’), was testament to where his heart lay – and that was strictly in the blues; the latter track featured guitarist LESLIE WEST and organist GREGG ALLMAN; RICK DERRINGER guested on the KOOPER track. Very much in the tradition of the aforementioned GALLAGHER, HENDRIX and ROBIN TROWER, Joe’s own compositions also shined through; `Miss You, Hate You’, `Colour And Shape’ and `Headaches To Heartbreaks’, topping the list.
Forsaking cover re-vamps for original co-penned material, that difficult second album, SO, IT’S LIKE THAT (2002) {*5}, pushed Joe back slightly, although it proved he was willing to try a myriad of blues styles; the 10-minute `Pain And Sorrow’ was almost HENDRIX incarnate. Also highlighting some tidy back-up from rhythm section Eric Czar (bass) and Kenny Kramme (drums), BONAMASSA turned the tables once again with an album (BLUES DELUXE (2003) {*6}) that produced no less that nine blues standards. All from the likes of B.B. KING, JOHN LEE HOOKER, The JEFF BECK GROUP, BUDDY GUY, ELMORE JAMES, T-BONE WALKER, FREDDIE KING, ALBERT COLLINS and ROBERT JOHNSON.
Taking its title from an attendant BLIND FAITH classic, HAD TO CRY TODAY (2004) {*7} was significant in returning him to a rootsy blues artist (most of his songs were penned with songwriter-to-the-stars, Will Jennings), only LOWELL FULSON’s `Reconsider Baby’ and the ALBERT COLLINS track `Travellin’ South’, steeped fully in blues tradition.
Complete with a new backing band that comprised bassist Carmine Rojas, organist Rick Melick and journeyman sticksman Jason Bonham (son of John Bonham), it was no surprise then that there was a 9-minute cover of a LED ZEPPELIN track `Tea For One’ on BONAMASSA’s fifth album, YOU & ME (2006) {*7}. A surprise hit in the Netherlands, and next to some of Joe’s best original material (from `Palm Trees Helicopters And Gasoline’ and `Bridge To Better Days’), the set took in strays from CHARLEY PATTON (`High Water Everywhere’), OTIS RUSH (`So Many Roads’), BOBBY BLAND (`I Don’t Believe’), SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON (`Your Funeral And My Trial’), Lefebvre-Bosmans classic `Django’ and a RY COODER trad bash, `Tamp Em Up Solid’.
One thing that was clear was that BONAMASSA was no slouch in the recording process, and at an album a year and some heavy touring schedules around the world, the man’s mission to give us his blues was commendable. Substituting Jason with session workhorse Anton Fig and hammered dulcimer player Bogie Bowles, Joe’s chart breakthrough (UK Top 50) came through the Kevin Shirley-produced SLOE GIN (2007) {*8}. A title track originally sung by actor Tim Curry (he of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), one could also compare Joe’s re-treads of CHRIS WHITLEY’s `Ball Peen Hammer’, BAD COMPANY’s `Seagull’, JOHN MAYALL’s `Another Kind Of Love’, `CHARLES BROWN’s `Black Night’ and JOHN MARTYN’s `Jelly Roll’. Turning 30 seemed to be the turning point for BONAMASSA, at least chart-wise. The double-CD concert set, LIVE FROM NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR (2008) {*7} gave him yet another No.1 Billboard Blues Album (No.136 in the main charts), while one must hear his tie-in medley of `A New Day Yesterday’ and YES songs `Starship Trooper’ and `Wurm’.
Just failing to breech the Top 100 but cracking the UK Top 30, THE BALLAD OF JOHN HENRY (2009) {*8} catapulted Joe’s star to new levels, and, while his title track came courtesy of folklore and myth, it was all down to tradition and blues; five covers stemmed from the likes of TOM WAITS (`Jockey Full Of Bourbon’), TONY JOE WHITE (`As The Crow Flies’), TINA TURNER (`Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter’), plus the NINA SIMONE number, `Feelin’ Good’ and Sam Brown’s `Stop!’. Released that autumn, LIVE FROM THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL {*7} showed how far JOE BONAMASSA had come, and while it trawled through past glories, his take of a B.B. KING staple (`Further On Up The Road’) – featuring ERIC CLAPTON – and ZZ TOP’s `Just Got Paid’ was riveting.
Both BLACK ROCK (2010) {*8} and DUST BOWL (2011) {*8} took Joe to his highest chart positions so far (Top 40 US and Top 20 UK), and with stars such as B.B. KING, JOHN HIATT (on his own `Tennessee Plates’), VINCE GILL (on his `Sweet Rowena’) and GLENN HUGHES (for FREE’s `Heartbreaker’) turning up to boost their own compositions; other re-vamps came via JEFF BECK, LEONARD COHEN, OTIS RUSH, Bobby Parker, BLIND BOY FULLER and another by Tim Curry (`No Love On The Street’).
In the meantime, Joe played his part in supergroup BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION, a hard-rock team showcasing former DEEP PURPLE songsmith Glenn Hughes (vocals/bass), seasoned drummer Jason Bonham and DREAM THEATER keyboard player Derek Sherinian. So far, the group have released three quality sets, “Black Country Communion” (2010), “2” (2011) and “Afterglow” (2012).
Complemented by regular L.A.-based blues chanteuse, BETH HART (who’d released several solo albums), the jointly credited DON’T EXPLAIN (2011) {*6}, was another side-line to the wide-ranging talents of BONAMASSA. Strictly a contemporary blues-soul-jazz covers album, the modern-day BONNIE RAITT, firebrand Beth powers her way through timeless nuggets including `I’d Rather Go Blind’, `Sinner’s Prayer’ and DELANEY BRAMLETT’s `Well, Well’.
2012’s solo DRIVING TOWARDS THE DAYLIGHT {*7} served up some further formulaic helpings of blues rock; AEROSMITH’s Brad Whitford and a vocal credit for Scots-born JIMMY BARNES (on bookend `Too Much Ain’t Enough Love’) identified this Kevin Shirley produced album. While blues buffs might’ve already discovered the cat’s cream from ROBERT JOHNSON, HOWLIN’ WOLF, WILLIE DIXON, Joe has always implanted the odd surprise or three, this time choice covers come from TOM WAITS’ `New Coat Of Paint’, BILL WITHERS’ `Lonely Town Lonely Street’ and Bernie Marsden’s `A Place In My Heart’. Like many other acts of his ilk, live double sets seemed to be a necessity, and there were no lack of substance and grit in BEACON THEATRE: LIVE FROM NEW YORK (2012) {*6} and AN ACOUSTIC EVENING AT THE VIENNA OPERA HOUSE (2013) {*6}.
A second collaboration in as many years by HART and BONAMASSA added to the man’s expanding CV. SEESAW (2013) {*6} was fundamentally a covers set, with Joe providing the stylish blues licks for Beth’s JOPLIN-meets-ETTA JAMES torch-lit re-interpretations of `Nutbush City Limits’, `Strange Fruit’, `If I Tell You I Love You’, `Miss Lady’ and STEVE CROPPER and DON COVAY’s title track.
On the back of a concert double-CD collaboration with BETH HART, LIVE IN AMSTERDAM (2014) {*6}, the prolific BONAMASSA took his work from Nashville (augmented by songwriters James House, Jerry Flowers, Jeffrey Steele, Jonathan Cain and Gary Nicholson) to the Palm Studios in Las Vegas for his Kevin Shirley-produced solo set, DIFFERENT SHADES OF BLUE (2014) {*7}; a transatlantic Top 10 breaker. A stellar cast of musicians backed him on this occasion, namely Anton Fig (drums, percussion), Reese Wynans (keys), Michael Rhodes or Carmine Rojas (bass), Lenny Castro (percussion), plus backing singers and a horn and string section, although star of the show was Joe and his raft of vintage guitars – all 20 of them. Intro’d by a haunting HENDRIX run through of `Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)’, BONAMASSA stepped up to the plate on a wide range of the blues, adding a touch of blue-eyed R&B on `Love Ain’t A Love Song’, `Heartache Follows Wherever I Go’ and `Trouble Town’, cut with a slice of honky-tonk for `I Gave Up Everything For You, ‘Cept The Blues’ and gospel on `So, What Would I Do’; purist blues and BONAMASSA fans were also treated by way of star tracks, `Oh Beautiful!’, `Get Back My Tomorrow’, `Never Give All Your Heart’ and the title track.
Attributing the legends that are MUDDY WATERS and HOWLIN’ WOLF, BONAMASSA gave out a history lesson in Delta blues in front of 9,000 fans in Colorado on August 31, 2014. The UK-only double-CD (or DVD equivalent) MUDDY WOLF AT RED ROCKS (2015) {*7} displayed all the usual traits of a heroic singer/guitarist whose name’s already carved out somewhere in the foothills of the aptly-named Rocky Mountains. One side each of tracks inspired by his famous heroes (introduced by both blues masters talking on tape), maybe fans have heard these songs such as `You Shook Me’ and `Spoonful’ a hundred times or more, but never with such grandiose ferocity, and never by such an assuming star of our times – JB.
Whether a legend in his own lunchtime or the finest blues guitarist to arrive on the planet since you-know-who, Joe could lay off the need to saturate the market with concert CD/DVD packages, no matter how classy LIVE AT RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL (2015) {*7} was in the eyes of his many followers. Recorded at the Vienna Opera House with either acoustic backing The Huckleberries or with his electric-biased regulars, it certainly had variations on the theme and several fresh pieces, whilst its DVD included behind-the-scenes extras.
Roping in respective Nashville songwriters James House and Tom Hambridge to add another dimension to his blunderbuss boogie sound, BONAMASSA’s BLUES OF DESPERATION (2016) {*7} was another glowing example of how far he could stretch his chosen genre. From the soulful `The Valley Runs Low’ to the PLANT & PAGE-ish title track (and the 8-minute `No Good Place For The Lonely’), to the chugging `This Train’ and the jazzy `Livin’ Easy’, Joe more than deserved the high esteem bestowed on him from this UK Top 3 set.
In tribute to the three Kings of the blues (BB, Freddie and Albert), another BONAMASSA bonanza of concert music was emptying the pockets of long-adoring fanbase. Double-CD, LIVE AT THE GREEK THEATRE (2016) {*7} literally swung into action (and the charts) when the axe hero played to a different boogie beat. Still, the man could do no wrong in the eyes and ears of his AOR acolytes, and if progress was dipping into nostalgia from time to time, then so be it.
© MC Strong/MCS Mar2013-Sep2016

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