Joe Bonamassa Brews His ‘Royal Tea’ In London


Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa is heading up the Fueling Musicians program, an emergency relief effort he launched during the pandemic.

(Photo: Terry Marland)

You can’t keep a hard-working bluesman down. Despite the pandemic-related lockdown, blues-rock superstar Joe Bonamassa has remained busy in recent months, releasing two albums and doing work for the nonprofit organization he co-founded, the Keeping the Blues Alive foundation. On Aug. 7, the label he started, J&R Adventures, released A New Day Now, which is a reworked version of his 2000 debut, A New Day Yesterday. The chart-topping Now album includes newly recorded vocals, as well as some new solos and instrumental passages.

“When I was making that [debut] record, I was a different singer,” Bonamassa, 43, said via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “When the idea came up about the 20th anniversary of this record, I looked at [producer] Kevin Shirley and said, ‘If we’re gonna remix this thing and put it out as a reissue, I want to sing this thing again.’ My instincts back [in 2000] were almost 180 degrees opposite from what they are now.”

On Sept. 20, Bonamassa, accompanied by his seven-member band, did a livestream concert in which he previewed the entire program of another new album, Royal Tea, a month prior to its release. The concert was held at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, where the seats contained cardboard cutouts with photos of fans printed on them.

He recorded the album in London at Abbey Road Studios, considered sacred ground by rock fans because it was the site of recordings by The Beatles, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd.

“You have to be careful when you record at iconic places—or when you play iconic places like [the Royal] Albert Hall, or the Greek [Theatre] or Carnegie Hall,” Bonamassa said. “You can easily get overwhelmed with the grandness of it and who [has played] there. You have to play the gig, and the same thing goes with Abbey Road. I knew that I wanted to listen to the record 10 years from now and go, ‘We played that studio; it didn’t play us.’ But that just comes with the experience of making that mistake a few times.”

The material on Royal Tea reflects not only the influence of guitarists Eric Clapton and John Mayall but also the ambition of British prog-rock. In addition to illustrating how his vocal style has become more dynamic over the years, the seven-minute suite “When One Door Opens” is one of the most intricately crafted studio tracks in Bonamassa’s oeuvre.

“I love prog,” he said. “If I’m never allowed to [tour] again, I can’t wait to dig in deeper and go way prog, because these songs give me the opportunity to really go medieval on an arrangement, and throw in some of those ‘proggy’ elements that I love so much.”

The Ryman concert, like many of Bonamassa’s performances, served as a fundraiser. An emergency relief effort he launched during the pandemic—the Fueling Musicians program—has supported more than 200 players with checks for $1,000, prepaid $500 gas cards and $50 Guitar Center gift cards, all to help musicians hit the road again in the future. Bonamassa plans to expand this charity work.

“We’re going to do an annual telethon, and I’d be honored to be the Jerry Lewis of the blues, because people are really struggling,” he said, alluding to the late comedian’s fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. “We’re in a very fortunate position. And that’s why I’ve dedicated so much time and effort to this Fueling Musicians initiative. I certainly can’t snap my fingers and fix it all for everybody, but I’d love to. And it’s not just blues and rock musicians. It’s all genres. They’re all fighting the good fight.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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