Joe Bonamassa: Blues Deluxe
“I did not and still don’t fear thinking outside the box and changing what we’re doing,” Bonamassa says. “I had created my own little house, and it was really comfortable. When Kevin first came to see me, it was in a sold-out blues club—300 people—and we thought that was pretty great. Four years later, we’re at the Royal Albert Hall with 5,000 people there and Eric Clapton coming out to play. The impact of these records with Kevin on my career is incalculable.”
Bonamassa has always had a knack for finding great material, and he has continued to do so even as his songwriting has grown stronger. His next CD, Black Rock, which will be released in March, was recorded in Greece and features local musicians enlivening Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” as well as a romp through “Steal Your Heart Away,” an old tune originally done by bluesman Bobby Parker. The song was recommended to Shirley by Robert Plant, who said Led Zeppelin rehearsed it in their earliest days and that he regretted not recording it.
But the guitarist has also become extremely prolific. In four years, he has released four studio albums (including Black Rock), a live album and the Albert Hall DVD. If he were still on a major label, as he was for his 2000 debut, he likely would have put out one or two of those projects. “Taking control and putting out our own product has given me a lot of freedom to keep trying different things and recording when we’re ready or just want to try something, rather than waiting for someone else to tell me it’s time,” he says.
Shirley has grown increasingly impressed with Bonamassa and Weisman’s business acumen and willingness to follow their instincts and try new things. “Musically, Joe will listen to ideas and let something play out to see if the vision develops and pay off,” Shirley says. “And he’ll know when to pull the plug and when to keep riding something. He and Roy have approached the business in a similar way. They’ve been mercurial enough to move with the demands of a fast-changing industry. They see every aspect of every cog in the wheel as leading up to something else. They pay for everything out of their pocket, and we have budgets better than a lot of big labels will give you now. And it’s all worked. People in this collapsing music industry are now referring to this as the ‘Bonamassa model’ and calling me to discuss it.”
This acquired business savvy is not in any way antithetical to great musicianship. Bonamassa says that B.B. King’s big advice to him was to know how to do everyone’s job and always take care of the money yourself. Still, running a tight ship would be meaningless without great music, and Bonamassa has continued to grow. Rojas says, “The thing about Joe is he’s so talented and so ready to explore. It makes it really fun and constantly challenging to play with him. If you crack open the door even just a little bit for him, you know he’s going to open it up and see what’s there.”
Following his Chicago performance at the Vic, Bonamassa was ready to do a little more exploring. He and Weisman hopped into a van and drove a couple of miles north to the Riviera Theatre, where Gov’t Mule were performing. An onstage jam between these two old friends had been orchestrated, and to facilitate it, a quick rehearsal had been held earlier in the day during Mule’s soundcheck. One of Joe’s beloved Les Pauls had been placed alongside Warren Haynes’ arsenal, ready for action.
Bonamassa arrived for the last two songs of Mule’s first set, thundering performances from their new CD, By a Thread, that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Haynes and the band took their break and headed down to their dressing room, Bonamassa stood hesitantly in the background for a moment before following them, acting more like a polite interloper than a guest star.
In the dressing room, Haynes and Bonamassa greeted each other like long-lost friends. They first met more than 15 years ago when they co-wrote a couple of songs for Bloodline’s 1994 debut, on which Haynes also played. After that band fell apart, Bonamassa recorded Haynes’ “If Heartaches Were Nickels” on his solo debut, and the song remains a staple of his live shows. Yet despite the connections and a strong mutual respect, the two had done precious little public jamming, and both were excited.
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