Joe Bonamassa returns with an adventurous new album, which we’ll soon get to hear represented on the live stage. By Peter Hodgson
Joe Bonamassa is back - not in a ‘comeback’ way, but in a very literal way: he was just here for Bluesfest a few months ago, and already, a return tour is on the books. Bonamassa is supporting his new album Blues of Desperation and playing some older tracks from his 20 solo albums. Maybe a cover or two. Maybe a few special guests. The greatest thing about seeing Joe Bonamassa live on stage is that every tour is different: different setlist, different concept, different approach.
“You can expect horns and you can expect singers and you can expect a blues-rock cavalcade of stars, barring myself personally because I’m not a star,” Bonamassa jokes. And he’s currently promoting perhaps his strongest album ever. Blues of Desperation finds the 38-year-old bluesman building upon the increased songwriting confidence of 2014’s Different Shades Of Blue. Produced by longtime collaborator Kevin Shirley and recorded in Nashville, the rhythm section is beefed up by the addition of a second drummer: both Anton Fig and Greg Morrow play drums on the album.
“I wrote specifically knowing that the two drummers were coming, and I wrote more in the power trio frame of mind even though it was a ‘power quartet,’ because we cut the tracks basically power trio-style,” Bonamassa explains. “And that was a great thing to have in mind when you went to write songs like ‘Mountain Climbing’ or the title track.”
The material in general and the unique rhythm section choice specifically seem like a conscious attempt to make the album different in the same way that each concert tour has its own vibe. “The idea about better yourself and the albums just comes with the more experience you have, the more... You know what to do and what not to do, so you try to evolve and try to get better every time you go out,” Bonamassa says. “I don’t understand this concept these days of celebrating youth and inexperience. To me, if someone said ‘Would you trade to be 22 again?’, no! Because I sucked when I was 22! I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything. So that’s really important. The more times you write a record, the more times you record, the more times you stand on stage, the better you are.”
It seems Nashville is the place to record lately. Since the slow death of the studio scene, Nashville is the one place where that side of the music industry still appears to be thriving. And it doesn’t hurt that the city has such character and history.
“Well, you can set up and record an album anywhere,” Bonamassa says. “We’ve recorded albums in Santorini, we’ve recorded records in California, we’ve recorded records in Nashville we’ve recorded albums just about everywhere. And the thing about recording albums in Nashville is the access to the talent. There’s so much talent down there. And I know it’s kinda hip to say everyone’s going to Nashville and everyone’s making a fucking country record, but it’s not quite that. It’s that the talent pool down there is extraordinary. So it’s easier to take two people to one city where everybody is, than it is to take one city to you, if you know what I mean.”
Producer Kevin Shirley has worked with Bonamassa since 2006’s You & Me, in addition to the albums by the supergroup Black Country Communion, with Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham.
“We go back almost a dozen years now and there’s an implicit trust between Kevin and I,” Bonamassa says. “I trust him. He always has my best interests in mind, he always understands that he has to push me but he also understands my limitations as an artist. So to have that in a producer and artist relationship is really unheard of these days. I know a lot of artists kind of flop around and use different producers, but quite frankly, I’m one of those kinds of people that once you find something that works, why change it?”
Shirley’s role goes well beyond a regular producer, helping to guide Bonamassa’s career and aligning him with like-minded musical talent across genres.
“One of the things I’ve been doing with Joe is, he’s definitely taken on the role of writing his own songs now and that’s been fantastic,” Shirley says. “But in this change-up - as we’ve developed his career - I’ve always been trying to find songs and open up his audience to embrace rock people and girls and all sorts of people, because the blues niche is so tiny. Y’know, it’s like 17 grey-haired men on a Thursday evening and that’s it, really!” It was this search for material and collaborators that led to Bonamassa’s pairing with our own Jimmy Barnes. “It’s always been about finding songs that will do something, and I love that track, ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough Love’,” Shirley says. “That’s the one I brought to Joe and said ‘Let’s do this one.’ And then he said ‘I don’t think I can sing that song’ so I said ‘Why don’t you get Jimmy to sing it? You’re not very well known down in Australia and it could be good for you down there.’ So I called Jimmy and he came over. We did ‘Lazy’ at the same time, on the same day. And since then they’ve had this really cool musical relationship.’”
“I’ve been working with the Barnes family now for three and a half, four years,” Bonamassa says. “I’ve guested on some of Jimmy’s records, I made a record with Mahalia of Betty Davis songs [Ooh Yea - The Betty Davis Songbook by Mahalia Barnes & The Soul Mates Featuring Joe Bonamassa]. Mahalia’s sung with my band and will be singing with my band on this current tour. So the Barnes family and the Bonamassa family have this very nice working relationship, and Jimmy’s a total legend. Honestly, when he sings, it’s so guttural and so powerful - and y’know, he’s a national treasure.”
Bonamassa has an enviable, world-class guitar collection, but for the record, he mainly called on a particular set of instruments.
“I used pretty much a small tool kit for this album, maybe eight guitars ranging from a ’59 Les Paul Standard to a ’51 Nocaster with a PAF in the front,” he says. “I used a Gretsch and an ES-5 on this album. I used a Firebird, a Korina Flying V. I used a weird Epiphone acoustic guitar with a DeArmond pickup shoved in the soundhole. A lot of it is tool kit guitars. The collection is one thing. The studio guitars are a different thing, y’know? You don’t see me playing my pristine mint stuff in the studio because the workhorses are much better suited for that.”
One of his latest gear additions is a new Seymour Duncan Custom Shop humbucker set modelled after the pickups in his famous ’59 Les Paul Standard, Principal Skinner. So what was it about that particular guitar’s voice and its pickups that he wanted to reproduce?
“Well y’know, a humbucker is a humbucker is a humbucker,” Bonamassa says, “But the Skinner pickups - like the ones we did initially for Magellan [another ’59 Les Paul Standard whose pickups Seymour replicated] - we tried to get it so you could install those pickups into a Les Paul Studio and have it reasonably close to the original guitar. And the original guitar is the sum of its components.
It’s the pickups, it’s the pots, it’s the wood, it’s the construction; it’s everything, y’know - that’s why they’re so valuable. But if you can get it close to the original guitar, then we’ve done our job. Seymour’s done a great job with these pickups. They sold out the first lot of 1,959 pickups. This next set will arguably be a few less [with a limited edition of 800] but I think the people who own the Skinner Burst reissues are going to be very happy.”
Another of Bonamassa’s recent guitar finds: a Telecaster acquired during the Bluesfest visit. “Word travels quickly in your country,” Bonamassa laughs when we bring it up. “I saw that guitar in Brisbane about two or three years ago, and then I saw it again about two or three months ago and I was in the guitar shop with my girlfriend. It’s a ’59 mutt. It’s got a ’59 neck on, like, a ’66 or ’67 body. It’s a total mutt, but it’s a six-pound sound machine! It’s a great workhorse guitar because it wasn’t terribly expensive like a pristine mint one, and it’s one of those things where you can just take it and shred on it and it’s almost guilt-free.”
Many of the guitars in Bonamassa’s collection have detailed records of provenance: a look at his Instagram account will reveal all sorts of original guitars, some of them with their original owners’ names painted on them from when they were used in rock n’roll combos back in the ‘50s.
“I generally like to find original-owner stuff, second-owner stuff,” Bonamassa says. “And I share my collection. Some people try to spin this thing as that I’m flaunting it. It’s not. I’m sharing it and the whole idea about collecting guitars is to share. So I turned my Instagram page - because y’know, the world needs another social media outlet, and certainly another social media outlet from me! - so I decided that when I was forced into starting an Instagram page because that’s what the kids were doing, I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna take it over and I’m just gonna do guitar-o-rama 100 per cent of the time.’ And it’s been great! And people like that page because it is original-owner stuff and I’m sharing the collection. Let the trolls be damned.”
He doesn’t just play old guitars though: he’s often seen playing brand-new Ernie Ball Music Man models. “I like the Steve Morse model the best,” he says. “They made two different Steve Morse models: they made one with four pickups, and they made one with three pickups. The one with three pickups has been my go-to as far as Ernie Ball guitars for a long time. I probably have a dozen or more Ernie Ball guitars. They’ve been super nice to me and I love the Ernie Ball strings.”
Bonamassa is known as an extreme workaholic, and one of the next projects on his horizon is a reunion with Black Country Communion. The band imploded a few years ago - basically, Bonamassa was too dedicated to his solo career to commit too much time to a band - but the lines of communication have reopened and, with a clearer understanding of everyones’ non-BCC obligations, they’re giving it another go.
“We’re going to begin writing a record at the end of July or the start of August,” Bonamassa confirms. “We’re going to give it a go in January, and it’s going to be Glenn and I, and Derek and hopefully Jason, and I think it’s going to be great. Kevin Shirley’s going to produce it. I think we have one great rock record in us left, and there’s some unfinished business. So it’ll be fun! I’m looking forward to it.”
Joe Bonamassa is touring Australia from September. For a full list of dates and to purchase tickets click here.