You & Me
For Utica, NY-native Joe Bonamassa, being heralded as the next blues protégé has been daunting. Picking up the guitar at four and playing Stevie Ray Vaughan licks at six might have something to do with it. Not to mention his tenure opening for BB King at ten and touring upstate New York at twelve. That’s when I first saw him. He was opening for Eric Johnson in Rochester, NY. Here’s this pudgy kid wandering up on stage and we all thought he was lost that is until he plugged in.
At 22, Bonamassa signed an international record contract and took his brand of electric blues to the world. He wasn’t the only one. Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang were trying to map out their own piece of the pie in the battle to become the next blues-rock king. This month (as he turns 29 yrs old) the guitarist releases his sixth solo record titled You & Me, his first with producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden). It also sees an added punch in the Bonamassa recording line up including famed guitarist Pat Thrall, legendary drummer Jason Bonham, bassist Carmine Rojas and guest vocalist Doug Henthorn. An added surprise is 12 year-old harmonica phenom, LD Miller making his debut with the band.
In the 1960’s it took a bunch of young British kids enchanted with American blues to bring the music of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Albert King to public awareness. Guys like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff and Peter Green all blazed trails paved by the blues giants that preceded them. They honored the genre, wound their way through the tones of the Deep South, found their soul in the bending of a string and gave it their signature. Others were possessed by the same emotion. Stevie Ray Vaughan picked up the banner through the eighties and early nineties, then after his death, was handed back to the legends themselves.
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was six years old,” Bonamassa told me on his tour bus outside the Crystal Bay Casino in Lake Tahoe, CA. “I’ve done six records in five years and have been in the business 16 years. All totaled, I’ve sold about a million records collectively. But two times my life changed. One, I worked with Tom Dowd on the first solo record New Day Yesterday. It was the first for me and sadly the last for him as he died shortly thereafter. I walked in thinking I knew a lot and walked out realizing I knew nothing. Tom was the greatest teacher anyone could have. He had such a wealth of knowledge. Working with Kevin Shirley was the second. I put him in the same league as Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone, Eddie Kramer and George Martin.”
Our interview blossomed from there.
The Cutting Edge: Producers usually have two angles they like to take. Either they turn you into their version of your sound (i.e Def Leppard) or they magnify your own God-given talent. Which direction did Shirley take?
Joe Bonamassa: It was a liberating experience for me. He was pushing me to be the best I could be. That’s the key to a good producer. It seems to be a rarity these days to play in tune and sing within a reasonable amount of takes. Kevin saw me play and knew what I was about. In the studio he would sit and grind me do it again, over and over.
TCE: How long did the recording session last?
JB: We spent a total of eleven days in the studio. I had the songs all written and arranged in my head but I hadn’t rehearsed them. The day I met Jason Bonham was the day we recorded four tracks. It was impressive.
TCE: How did Jason get involved?
JB: Kevin Shirley knew him and suggested he come in and jam. They have this whole Zeppelin connection. Even though I had the songs in my head when Jason put his spin on them, they exploded. He gave them a real heavy thump. Carmine Rojas (bass) added his unique punch. All of a sudden it was cooler than I ever thought it would be. Three or four takes down the line and we were done.
TCE: Do you always work that fast?
JB: I don’t mess around in the studio. I want to get in, get it done and get out. All the best old records were cut like that. It captures the vibe of the room. It’s emotional, electric and full of passion.
TCE: You usually do all your own vocals. However, with “Tea for One,” the Led Zeppelin cover off Presence, Doug Henthorn steps in and takes over.
JB: Hey, I’m no Robert Plant. I don’t have that kind of voice. I don’t pretend to have that kind of voice. Kevin goes back along way with Jimmy Page. That’s sacred territory approaching Led Zeppelin stuff. Kevin knew this guy, Doug Henthorn from the Healing Sixes. Doug has a higher, cleaner, range which really suited the song. It was the right singer for the right song.
TCE: Surrendering your own pride for the sake of the song is definitely the higher road.
JB: I feel this record is the best foot forward. Kevin told me straight up. I won’t do this if you want to make the same old blues record that I hear umpteen times. You need to trust me and not try to second-guess everything I do. I was willing to take the risks to move forward musically and as a musician.
TCE: The record has a lot of strength. That’s a true testament to the caliber of musicians selected for this recording.
JB: It was one of those magical experiences in the studio where we lucked out. It was eleven days and that’s all we needed. Back in the day bands came in rehearsed and were ready to go. Think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, man all they did was rehearse ‘cause Ronnie wanted them better than anyone else out there. There was none of this six months in the studio crap. They had eight tracks, an echo and some reverb that was it. Everything else the band had to come up with. One or two takes, maybe three and it was done. I record like I play; live.
TCE: What about solos, overdubs, that kind of thing?
JB: I play my solos ‘live’ and overdub the rhythms. When I’m playing face to face with Jason Bonham and he’s following me and the magic is happening, man, we’re on fire. You’re not going to rerecord that again. You get one shot at it and that’s it. I think it makes it human.
TCE: A lot of guitarists, many of them, your contemporaries noodle quite a bit in the studio. Perfection seams to get in the way of passion.
JB: Guitar records today maybe a technical achievement where every note it thought out, but they lack the human touch. I’d rather listen to my BB King records. A little bit of raw edge makes it special.
TCE: Tonight you’re playing on your own your name is the only one on the marquee. Can someone just starting out still make it in the music business?
JB: The way the music business is now it’s not a ‘record’ business. It’s selfish and material. Money is the bottom line not the music. I’m lucky to be working. I’ve done six records in five years. I work really hard and give all I have to my music and the people who come out to see my shows. Half a dozen people and their livelihood hang on my name. I feel that pressure. But we do it because we love the music despite the business. I learned that from BB King. I learn life’s lessons from the road - something new every day.
TCE: Your show moves from progressive blues to traditional to hard rock. A challenging set for even the most accomplished musicians to play. Yet, you keep it pretty simple. You play as a power trio with no loops, keyboards or drum machines. That’s admirable.
JB: We have a certain set list that we adhere to. But every show is different. Mark, my bass player for the road, and I like to try different variations of different chords. He answers my question musically - if I play one part, he’ll play another. What I’m thinking he’s thinking at the same time. It’s our own language but it works really well. They same goes for my drummer - although working with Jason was a gas.
You & Me, as a cohesive whole, plays more like a traditional blues record than Bonamassa’s harder rockin’ predecessors. In his liner notes he claims, “I wanted to make a blues album, not a rock album that has blues on it.” That is exactly what is accomplished here. Starting the disc off, “High Water Everywhere” has a simple shuffle while Joe’s thick raspy voice tells a story like it’s 200 years old. The short hook and captivating presence draws comparisons to both The White Stripes and The Black Keys. A similar style is used in “Tamp Em Up Solid” where the acoustic guitar rings of traditional breeding.
There are a number of big-band blues compositions complete with organ, piano and in some cases orchestration. The swinging “I Don’t Believe,” the organ heavy “Your Funeral and My Trial” and the Gary Moore-inspired “So Many Roads” has Bonham laying down a thunderous backbeat. All three open up and allow Joe to extend himself into blinding solos. The ballad “Asking Around for You” takes a slight diversion into Black Crowes territory and is sweetened by its stringed orchestration.
The more aggressive “Bridge to Better Days” has Robin Trower’s influence all over it. The piano added by Rick Melick holds the mood while wa-wa distortion supercharges an energy flow into a great ‘70’s vibe. Nicely placed is “Django” a refreshing instrumental showcasing Bonamassa’s stunning versatility. Most intriguing is the Zeppelin cover “Tea For One” with its classic riff that Bonamassa hooks on to and embraces with his own melodic weave. As mentioned in our interview, the tune features Doug Henthorn whose expressive voice echoes that of Jack Bruce or James Dewar. The epic track bleeds over into the more acoustic “Palm Trees Helicopters and Gasoline” giving the pairing an eerie Houses of the Holy vibe. Closing track, “Torn Down” has Joe doing his best BB King impression with the band in a perfect sync as they grind out a true blues burner.
Website: Joe Bonamassa