Joe Bonamassa: (Still) Keeping the Blues Alive

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“The first Blues Deluxe album took seven days to finish, this one took five,” Joe Bonamassa says of Time Clocks, a tribute to, and continuation of, his first hit album 20 years ago.

(Photo: Adam Kennedy)

Perhaps the highest-profile blues guitarist on the planet today, Joe Bonamassa has packed iconic venues all over the globe, from Royal Albert Hall in London to the Beacon Theater and Carnegie Hall in New York, Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville as well as the Sydney Opera House, Vienna Opera House and The Koninklijk Theater Carré in Amsterdam. The blues, it seems, travels well these days.

In late September, he played alongside his boyhood hero John McLaughlin on a version of Jeff Beck’s “’Cause We Ended As Lovers” at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he’s gearing up for his ninth annual Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise, scheduled to travel from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico, in March 2024. If not the best, he’s certainly the hardest-working blues guitarist around.

Known for his incredible technique, which he has been flaunting in public since being trotted out on stage at the ripe old age of 12, the seasoned 46-year-old New York native has been in the spotlight his entire adult life. And while Bonamassa may also deftly incorporate progressive rock and heavy metal elements into the mix, which he did convincingly on 2021’s Time Clocks, he remains a dedicated blues scholar at heart. In conversation with the busy blues ambassador, he seems genuinely humbled by talking about his own personal blues guitar heroes like Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and especially B.B. King, who he opened for as a little kid during the summer of 1990.

A self-described “old soul,” Bonamassa has said he felt he was a child of the ’60s (even though he was born in 1977) because of his deep connection to the Holy Trinity of guitar gods from those days: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Aside from B.B. King, he counts Danny Gatton as a significant mentor. (It was Gatton who introduced a young Bonamassa to recordings by iconic guitarists like Les Paul, Hank Garland, Gene Vincent, Cliff Gallup, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis). Another guitarist whose influence looms large is Eric Johnson, whose signature progressive lines can be heard in some of Bonamassa’s more rock-tinged playing.

Bonamassa spoke with DownBeat correspondent Bill Milkowski by phone just before he embarked on his fall tour in conjunction with the release of the rootsy Blues Deluxe, Vol. 2 on his J&R Adventures label.

Bill Milkowski: You had just come off a successful studio album with Time Clocks and followed that with your live concert film and album Tales Of Time, shot at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre last summer and released on CD/DVD/Blu-Ray. Why did you decide to return to the blues now?

Bonamassa: I never expected to make this album. Basically, I wanted to do something for the anniversary of Blues Deluxe, which kind of helped my solo career break out 20 years ago. That was my third album but the first one that really started to get some traction. And so instead of just remastering the original record, which is just a cheap way to sell it twice, I decided that we needed to cut another volume of songs. I got together with Josh Smith, who plays guitar in my band and is a great producer/artist himself, and we went into Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles and just did it. The first Blues Deluxe album took seven days to finish, this one took five. It was a process of singing a guide vocal, doing a couple of takes, taking solos on the floor and then, “Are we all happy with it? Great, next.” It was crazy how fast it all went.

Milkowski: There are a couple of tunes, like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Twenty-Four Hour Blues” and Josh Smith’s power ballad “Is It Safe To Go Home,” that go beyond a straight shuffle blues by using full string and horn sections.

Bonamassa: Yes, our bassist and musical savant Calvin Turner wrote all the horn and string parts. So nothing’s canned. Everything is played live, I’m proud to say.

Milkowski: You also tip your hat to blues icons like Bobby Parker, Guitar Slim, Albert King and Pee Wee Crayton on this album.

Bonamassa: Yeah. Those are Mt. Rushmore-level blues singers and guitarists. You’re never gonna get to where those guys got on those tunes, so you just have to kind of just relax and be yourself; just be who you are and do your own version of the tune. We obviously wanted to hit a couple of other marks along the way, like tipping the hat to the British blues scene with Fleetwood Mac’s “Lazy Poker Blues.” Because my blues journey started in London with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton and Peter Green, then ended up in Chicago with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush and all those real-deal blues guys that the British cats worshipped. So our version of “Well, I Done Got Over It” is straight out of the Bluesbreakers playbook from The Beano Album (1966 John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers album featuring Eric Clapton). And when we picked the songs, it was like, “Let’s just play it and have fun.” And I think you can really hear the band responding that way throughout the album.

Milkowski: Blues Deluxe is named for a Jeff Beck tune on his first album as a leader, 1968’s Truth. So there’s the London connection again.

Bonamassa: Yeah, I cut my teeth on Truth and Beck-Ola. And if you listen to “Blues Deluxe,” the song is, simply put, the first verse of “Gambler’s Blues” from B.B. King’s Blues Is King (1967) and Buddy Guy’s hit single “Stone Crazy” (1961). On Truth, it’s credited to Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, but those verses are lifted straight out of Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Complete lift job.

Milkowski: Your version of Bobby Parker’s “It’s Hard But It’s Fair” is super funky with the punchy horns.

Bonamassa: My biggest regret is that Bobby never heard this version we did of his tune. I’m a huge Bobby Parker fan. Bobby was a friend. He had heard my version of his song “Steal Your Heart Away” (from 2010’s Black Rock), and he loved it. Bobby lived just outside of Washington, D.C., and he actually came and sat in with us in D.C. years ago, and he played “Steal Your Heart Away” with us. He was a good dude and we were really close to doing something with him. We were talking to him with (producer) Kevin Shirley about doing an album together. It was going to a kind of comeback album for him, but he suddenly died (in 2013). Bobby Parker had a moment in the ’60s, but he isn’t mentioned in the same company of the greats, and it’s sad. Because a lot of those great artists like Bobby, although they were kind of more obscure, were just absolutely talented to the highest level. But their business was all fucked up. Bobby’s story was no different than many of them — trouble with managers, labels, this and that. You know, he just never could catch a break.

Milkowski: Your love of Albert King comes across loud and clear in the first two notes of “You Sure Drive A Hard Bargain.”

Bonamassa: You know, I was leery of doing it. That was Josh Smith’s idea and I told him, “Josh, this is a big mountain to climb, man. I don’t know if I can even get to base camp on it.” And he said, “Let’s try it. The worst that can happen is we’ll just scrap it.” And it came out good. I was proud of it, especially the way I sang it. Sure, it’s a guitar-based album, but it’s really a singing gig in many ways because you’re covering songs by some of the greatest of blues singers of all-time, like Albert King.

Milkowski: It may well be a singing gig, but that Kenny Neal shuffle, “The Truth Hurts,” is a guitar extravaganza with you, Josh Smith and Kirk Fletcher all trading furious licks at the end.

Bonamassa: Basically, we wanted to do a tip of the hat to that great Alligator record from the mid-’80s, Showdown!, with Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. Anybody who’s in their 40s and plays guitar in the blues world had a copy of Showdown! That was standard ops back then. So we wanted to do a little tribute to that, where everybody takes a verse, takes a chorus, then trades off at the end.

Milkowski: Your original tune “Hope You Realize It” is a stone tribute to Tower of Power with the swaggering horns and with bassist Calvin Turner copping that pumping 16th-note Rocco Prestia vibe from “What Is Hip?”

Bonamassa: Yeah, that was a song I wrote with Tom Hambridge. It was kind of funky to begin with and as we started flirting with the Tower of Power vibe I said, “Listen, fellas, if we’re going to go there, let’s go all the way. Let’s not beat around the bush. Everybody knows where this shit is coming from.” So, you know, our guys speak all the languages, and Calvin definitely speaks Rocco. But the thing about a blues covers record, which is predominately what this is … you got to get off the trail. You cannot follow the same deer trails that everybody’s followed. You got to dig and find something deeper than just the well-worn path. It’s about keeping the blues alive and just keeping going with it. DB



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