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Bonamassa blues

Guitarist Joe Bonamassa knows how to master the mixture of blues and rock — all you have to do is play one of his solo albums to find that out.

By Jeb Wright

Joe Bonamassa on stage. Photo by Christie Goodwin

Joe Bonamassa on stage. Photo by Christie Goodwin

Guitar virtuosoJoe Bonamassa has taken his talents and carved out a special niche that has made him a household name in the genre of the blues. His latest album, “Blues of Desperation,” sees the talented muse, once again, crafting a blues rock album of epic proportions. Bonamassaseems to be able to walk into a room, pick up a guitar and effortlessly create the best album of his career. He’s done it time and again. Truth be told, it may be a little harder than it looks, but Bonamassa is a master songwriter, performer and musician.

Oh, and not only is Bonamassa one of the best on the planet musically, he also runs his own business, is a master of social media and has made a small fortune by leaving the accepted music business model behind, choosing instead to forge his way into the new land of opportunity — the Internet.

Recently, Bonamassa took time to sit down with Goldmine and discuss his business acumen, the new album, working with his longtime producer Kevin Shirley and the newly announced reunion with the rock band Black Country Communion.

Goldmine: With “Blues of Desperation” you are, once again, a songwriting machine. Do you ever wonder why the well has not gone dry?

JOE BONAMASSA: It is one of those things where you try hard to come up with different things. Kevin Shirley (producer) has a lot to do with the creative side as well. For me, the last two album cycles I’ve worked with some really good Nashville writers. Those guys have helped me rekindle the love of the song.

Kevin had the idea for the two drum thing,… a power quartet ... two drums, bass and guitar. We had that idea. During the writing process I wrote big, loud and heavy songs. I treated it like it was going to be a power trio but with two drums. That was the headspace going into it. I think it came out great. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Mountain Climbing.” It is just an open D Minor.

GM: How did you and Kevin meet?

JB: Kevin and I met in 2005. I knew Kevin through his work through the Led Zeppelin remixes and Journey and everything else. Anyway, long story short, I didn’t think Kevin would be interested in working with a blues schlub like me, as he was this big time rock producer. To my surprise, Kevin was moving to California and he was looking to develop an act and get in on the ground floor of something. I just happened to come along. He said he was going to get me a new band and the next thing you know Jason Bonham is in the room. Carmine Rojas (bassist) is in the room. I’ve done lots of shows with these guys over the years now.

We made a record called “You & Me” and I remember getting a call from the guy who runs Mascot Records and we’ve had a 13 to 14 (year) run with them as our European partner. I got a phone call from him in December of 2005 and he said, “This was the record I was hoping you could make.” That was the beginning of it all.

GM: I understand you’re playing The Cavern Club where the Beatles started...…

JB: It was actually (bassist) Michael Rhodes’ idea. He was like, “One of these days you guys should do a gig at the Cavern Club.” We’d just played the arena at Liverpool. I was like, “That sounds like fun.” It was a spur of the moment thing. We had a day off and we were going to be rehearsing so I said, “Let’s do it.”

We called them up, if they had something booked that night then they rescheduled. We are going to go in and do that and kick ass. I like doing a club show like that once or twice a year. It brings it back to what it is intrinsically all about. In America, we have the big theaters and they are awesome. In Germany and France we will play arenas. It is easy to lose touch when you can only see two rows of the audience. When they are right on top of you and it is loud then that is what it is intrinsically all about. That is why we do this. I like doing free shows sometimes. I ask a lot of my fans and they give to me. So 300 lucky people get to see a show for free once a year and I think it is a win-win.

GM: From afar, you balance this thing to where you’re genuine in your musicianship, you put enough emotion into it that it feels real and you have the show as well. You’ve yet to make an album to make me think you’re just going through the motions.

JB: I can’t do it. The thing is, we’ve started records and we’ve kind of run out of steam we leave the option on the table that if we don’t have it, we wait six months and then cut another five songs. I can tell you what the world needs; especially in California ... we need rain. You know what California doesn’t need? Another Joe Bonamassa record. They can wait six months. The world doesn’t need another record too soon. That is our litmus test: If it feels right.…

This last one, “Blues of Desperation,” we got it all. We took one week and we had the whole thing and we knew it. We didn’t cut any bonus stuff. We did eleven tracks. We were like, “I think we’ve got it.” We lived with it a while. Kevin waited about four weeks before he mixed it. He came back with fresh ears and I heard the first few tracks and it was strong.

GM: You somehow have been able to mix the creative world with a strong business sense. Not having a business sense has been the downfall of many an artist.

JB: That’s the thing where bands are not savvy to the second word in music business, which is business. No one is looking out for you. You have to look out for yourself. You’ll be marginalized. They will give it away for free ­__ as who cares if the artist gets paid.

When all of those summer concerts go on sale the first thing they do is look for Groupons. People are automatically used to not paying face value. It is like they are buying a guitar in a f**king pawnshop. They are now going to stream it live and they are going to do this and do that. You know who loses in all of that? The act. Live Nation will make it up by selling beer, popcorn and parking which the band does not partake in. It is legal, but it is criminal in the same sense.

GM: To play the devil’s advocate, you’re on Spotify.

JB: I just don’t have the wherewithal.…I am lucky that my fan base knows that everything is self-funded. They actually go buy the DVD and they buy the record. You can get me on Spotify. I am not going to fight that crap. The issue is now the new acts coming up that don’t have that brick and mortar foundation of a fan base. Now I can stream the concert and listen to the album on Spotify.

Last time I checked, when I started renting our tour buses, fifteen or sixteen years ago they were $550 to $650 per day. The one I am currently sitting on is $750. The cost of doing business has not changed. A studio is $2,500 per day if you want a place that functions and has an engineer. The costs have not changed, yet the end result of all of this seems to be trending towards free, you know.

GM: The new acts should be scared.

JB: It is scary. I wouldn’t want to be one.

GM: We have to talk about Black Country Communion. I never thought you all would make another record as you broke up kind of badly.

JB: When I listen to I, II and III, the first two are my favorites. I actually have grown to like the third one. At first I didn’t like the third one. I thought, “Man, if we had one album that was the best of these three albums then we have a classic record.” This band has a classic record in it. We just have to make it. We have to not be so rushed and not think ahead so much. We need to take it one day at a time. That is what we are going to do. I want to do this. I want to make music with those guys again. It would mean a lot to me for us to get back together.

GM: I can’t find the hotshot guitarist ego in you, Joe. Do you secretly keep it hidden from the media?

JB: We all have an ego. I am the most balanced guy in the blues as I have chips on both of my shoulders. All I really want to do is play my guitar. When I walk into Guitar Center there is always a kid in the corner who can blaze right past me.

I find in the second and third tier blues acts that the ego ... I just never got along with them because there was always this ego. Everyone was so busy fighting over the same nickel that they never saw the dime sitting on the floor next to them. There was too much negativity in what was an incestuous theme. I never bought into it. I never bought into the theme of being the best guitarist on the planet, as it was just not a possibility.

GM: Last one Joe, you’ve played with everyone it seems. Eric Clapton, Paul Rodgers ... the list goes on and on. Is there anyone that would intimidate you to share a stage with?

JB: 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 B.B. King was so nice. He knew he was a bad-ass. He had a quiet confidence about him. The first person in the room who tells you they are the greatest is the weakest one in the room. That one who 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.

GM: And I am so jealous that you got to play Rory Gallagher’s guitar. That one makes me envy you so much!

JB: Oh, I got to play it twice!