Joe Bonamassa: Blues Deluxe
Producer Kevin Shirley helped make sure that Bonamassa’s emotions informed the music as much as they did the lyrics and vocals. “He was so obviously distraught when we cut ‘Happier Times,’ ” Shirley recalls. “We tracked it, and then I took him aside and said, ‘Play everything you are feeling on that guitar.’ I left him alone and just let him play and play with the guys, playing the changes over and over, and later I edited that down into the solo. It was pretty intense. I can still feel that emotion when I listen to the song. And amazingly, he says that he doesn’t have a memory of playing it at all. He just poured everything into the solo.”
Bonamassa’s successful integration of his pain into the music also represented a maturation of his approach to music. He has had terrific chops and an almost freakish ability to play hot-rodded blues rock almost since the day he played his first gig, at age 11, after sitting in with guitar greats like Albert Collins and Danny Gatton in his hometown of Utica, New York. A year later, B.B. King took him under his wing, and he made his major-label debut, as a member of the band Bloodline, when he was still a teen. Bonamassa has evolved into a deeper, more well-rounded musician. His licks are no less impressive, but now they are in the service of something greater, working in a context that appeals to those outside the guitar community.
This transition began in earnest in 2006 when he first entered a studio with Shirley, who had produced the Black Crowes and Aerosmith and is probably best known for having mixed Led Zeppelin’s How the West Was Won and the group’s eponymous DVD, both released in 2003. Shirley took a much more expansive view of Bonamassa’s music and potential than anyone had previously.
“From the first time we spoke, Kevin didn’t care what I could do well,” Bonamassa says. “He cared about what I needed to work on, and he wanted to challenge me. He suggested a lot of songs and situations I never thought would work, and we tried them, and it took us to a whole new place and a whole new level.”
Shirley recalls going to see Bonamassa for the first time, in a small club outside Chicago. He was impressed, but not exactly wowed. “It was clear to me right away that Joe was a great guitar player, but I wasn’t sure where he was taking it,” he says. “I went on the bus, and he asked what I thought, and I was just totally honest. I said, ‘I think that you’re very good, but you’re on a bit of a nowhere journey. If you ever want to think outside the box, then let’s do something, but it’s going to take you places you might not be comfortable with, and you’ll have to trust me.’
“He was a little taken aback—he had just played a gig and had 50 adoring fans around him—but he called me about a week later and said, ‘Okay, I’m ready. What do you want to do?’ ”
Shirley’s first thought was that Bonamassa should expand beyond the power-trio lineup he had been playing with for years. He wanted to bring in some new and different musicians, starting with drummer Jason Bonham and bassist Carmine Rojas, a veteran session and road musician who had performed with David Bowie, Rod Stewart and countless others. Shirley says, “These guys are great musicians, but more importantly they had the experience and musical respect to let Joe be the star.”
Bonamassa says, “The thing that was so great about working with Kevin is he opened things up without trying to steer me away from blues and the music I loved and wanted to perform. He saw more possibilities for what I was doing, but he wasn’t trying to change me or make me into something I wasn’t, and it was all good from the start. The first thing he did was call Jason Bonham, and working with him was great. I am just not the kind of guy who would do that myself.”
That recording became You and Me, Bonamassa’s third album to be released on his own J&R Adventures label and his first to debut atop the Billboard Blues Albums chart. Bonamassa has never been a blues purist—the title track of A New Day Yesterday, his debut CD, is a Jethro Tull song—but on You and Me he expanded his usual mix of original and cover tunes further. In one instance, he took on Led Zeppelin’s “Tea for One,” inspired by Bonham’s drumming. It was evident then that he had taken a subtle but definitive turn, one he furthered by adding Rojas and keyboardist Rick Melick to his touring band, along with drummer Bogie Bowles (who had previously worked with Kenny Wayne Shepherd). The result is a more professional band and a fuller sound that puts a stronger focus on Bonamassa and the songs.
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