Bluesfest 2016 is almost upon us, and American blues rock maestro Joe Bonamassa is seeking redemption.
His two exclusive Australian sets at the Easter long weekend event, while hardly requiring a crossroads-like pact with the devil, will provide the hugely talented singer-guitarist with a chance for atonement.
“I played Byron Bay one time, I believe it was 2010,” he says. “I had the shittiest backline and came off the stage thinking I had ruined my entire career in the country of Australia. I thought my guitar sound was just dreadful, but Sod’s Law meant that I had more people, artists included, coming up to me asking me, ‘Man, what were you using up there, because it sounded great?’ So I go, ‘What fucking show were you watching?’ This year I’m actually shipping my own gear over there, so it gives me a fighting chance – at least me personally. But probably nobody will say anything. ‘Oh, it sounded shit, never mind’ [laughs].”
The garrulous and amiable New Yorker’s 12th solo album, Blues Of Desperation, will be released just in time for his Australian shows, and represents somewhat of a return to his roots.
“After exploring so many avenues – I was in a hard rock band, I did two years of doing traditional blues, we did The Three Kings tour, the album with Mahalia [Barnes], the stuff I do with Beth Hart – I woke up one day and thought that what I am really good at is blues rock,” he says. “That’s actually probably what I’m best at, and I should get back to doing what I do best. The album represents that; the urgency to get back to swinging the heavier bat and playing heavier stuff.”
Blues Of Desperation sees Bonamassa once again teaming up with producer Kevin Shirley, an arrangement that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
“Kevin and I came up with the title based on the song,” Bonamassa says. “For a minute it was changed to Drive, before I finally decided that my life should not become a focus group thinking about who will be turned off by a title. Frankly, it’s not going to sell one more or less copy either way, and I’ve always done things in my career that just felt good, natural and organic. If I saw the record in a store, I would stop and look at it. But if I saw an album called Drive, it’s too vanilla for me. [Kevin and I] have been together for 11 years now. I told him that I think the reason we get on so well together is that everyone sticks to their job: I’m the travelling salesman, Kevin does the records, and Roy [Weisman, manager] runs the business.”
At only 38, Bonamassa has already been a working musician for 26 years, having opened for B.B. King when he was 12. The idea that a true bluesman never really retires might not apply here, however.
“I reckon I have another 24 years left before I can officially retire after 50 years in,” he laughs. “I tell you, I’m not going to be a lifer. The problem is, to do this at a high level and to keep the quality up, it takes a lot of preparation. I’m not one of those cats who just walks onstage and it all just comes out of me. I think there’s more to life. I don’t want to look down the line when I’m too old to pursue something else and think I squandered the opportunity. Not that having a career in music is a bad thing – it’s an honour to do this for a living – but there’s more to life than plugging a Gibson guitar into a Fender amp, you know?”
On top of his abundant playing and writing skills, Bonamassa has been a student of the blues since childhood, starting with the ’60s British blues guitarists who brought the form to the masses.
“It was my original gateway into blues,” he says. “As a six- or seven-year-old, it’s very hard to get the subtleties of Robert Johnson, as you can barely hear it on a record player. Only 20 years after the fact did I realise the true genius of those original masters, and even now I’m discovering them and realising how many of their ideas were, let’s say, borrowed by the British blues rock scene of the ’60s. My first introduction was The Jeff Beck Group, and that was the gateway.”
While Bonamassa is a big fan of Australia and its music, he admits he lives in a bubble when it comes to what music is most popular here, or anywhere. Luckily his Sydney-born girlfriend keeps him informed.
“I have a lot of ties to Australia,” he says. “Mahalia and I were literally just a week ago at Carnegie Hall; she was singing with me. I kind of know what is going on. I’m wilfully ignorant about the pop music scene. I mean, sometimes I’ll run into somebody and my girlfriend knows I have that ‘What the fuck?’ look on my face. She’ll be like, ‘That’s actually a really popular artist,’ and I’ll be like ‘Great! Congratulations.’ One guy I love is [blues slide guitarist] Dave Hole, who lives in Perth. He’s one of the best.”