Joe Bonamassa: Blues Deluxe
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2010
Joe Bonamassa is fresh off a hit album, a live DVD and a badly broken
heart. With his career on the hot track and a new CD on the way, the blues guitarist refl ects on his gains and losses, and what is yet to come.
Joe Bonamassa is sitting in his regular perch in the front of his tour bus as it rolls through the Illinois countryside. It’s 2:30 in the morning, and we are driving to Chicago from Peoria, where he just performed before a Civic Center crowd of 1,000. In 12 hours he will walk into the grand old Vic Theatre to soundcheck for a sold-out show. The rest of his 10-member band and crew have slipped into their bunks for some quiet time or sleep, but Bonamassa is sipping red wine and reflecting on his career.
Though he’s just 32, Bonamassa has been on the road for almost 20 years. A prodigal talent who could shred the blues with remarkable fluidity as a kid, he seems to be hitting his stride now with a series of successful CDs and DVDs that have raised his profile, elevating him from clubs to theaters and putting him on the cusp of something grander.
It’s been a long and difficult journey. Over the years he has gone from overseeing the entire operation himself (including driving the band around in a van) to having a veteran professional tour manager that supervises a small road crew. And he has done it all by taking control of his career in partnership with Roy Weisman, his manager of 18 years. They now handle everything in Bonamassa’s career, from releasing his music to booking his shows, and seem to have found a stable path through the treacherous, ever-shifting landscape of the contemporary music business.
Bonamassa has a lot to be glad for. His last CD, The Ballad of John Henry, stood atop the Billboard Blues Albums chart for six months after its debut. This past September, he released the DVD Live at the Royal Albert Hall, which features his band blazing through a set at the sold-out London landmark, complete with an appearance by his hero Eric Clapton. His next CD, Black Rock, is already in the can.
This would seem to be the moment at which he could pat himself on the back and reflect on how far he’s come. But as his tour bus rolls through the darkness, Bonamassa is considering what he’s sacrificed: a chance to build a stable home life around a lasting relationship.
“Living this life, even if you find the true love of your life, chances are you’re gonna burn them out being gone,” he says. “What good is it to be in a relationship when you’re gone for months on end or they come out with you and sit on the bus with nothing to do? I’ve had two long-term relationships in 10 years, and it burns them out.
“Last year I thought I found the one, so I still think it’s possible. I was on cloud nine. You could not have given me the blues if you tried. Six months later, after this huge movement of houses, people, everything—I moved from L.A. to Athens, Georgia—it fell apart, and I was at the lowest point of my life.”
In the tried-and-true tradition of the blues, Bonamassa turned to his music for healing. He poured the emotions of this spectacular disaster of a relationship—the ups and the downs—into the songs of the album he was in the midst of recording. The Ballad of John Henry was recorded in two sessions, four months apart—a third of a year during which Bonamassa’s moods spanned the gamut of human emotions.
“I was as happy as I’ve ever been when we did the first sessions for the album and as down as I’ve ever been when we did the second,” he says. “I could not have been in a worse place.”
Bonamassa’s struggles and this dark period produced some of his deepest, most personal songwriting, notably “Last Kiss” and “Happier Times.” “I think these are the most heartfelt songs, with the best lyrics, that I’ve ever written,” he says.