As he is growing towards superstardom, blues-rock guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa stays the nice kid from way back when.
Last week Friday night my friend Ric and I went out for our annual ritual of seeing Joe Bonamassa playing the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville. Considering that we only rarely leave our beloved Amelia Island, Joe is just that caliber that makes us do that. He never disappoints us. What a concert!
Before you sit down to read this story, my suggestion is to open your internet browser and find a long Joe Bonamassa song on youTube like this one , that was taped more than 8 years ago, just before he performed for the first time outside of the US on the French-Dutch Island of St.Maarten.
Utica New York born Joe Bonamassa found blues and the guitar at age 4, obviously assisted by his musician parents. At age 7 he copied Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan note for note. Joe was an “Old Music Soul” when I met him first in 1994 when he played in a blues-rock band called Bloodline. The band was an industry fabrication born out of a Fender Guitar Award ceremony in Los Angeles, whereby sons of famous 60s musicians formed the back up support for young guitar prodigy Joe Bonamassa.
Even though I liked their one and only CD with the hit singles “Stone Cold Hearted” and “Dixie Peach”, Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger’s son Waylon, Miles Davis’ son Erin and Berry Oakly’s son Berry Jr. were not a really a match for 17 year old Bonamassa’s virtuosity on guitar. It didn’t help the band either that Joe was still more of a Blues man with an occasional sidestep into Bluesrock, than a rocker. Even though his guitar playing was strongly influenced by 60s British guitar gods such as Clapton, Page, Beck, Peter Green, Kossof and great late Rory Gallagher, Joe’s diverse musical upbringing had roots in Delta Blues. So with Bloodline Joe “just” played his Telecaster, yet had his eyes and future set on becoming all around like Clapton, Hendrix and Stevie Ray; musician, singer, songwriter.
Not a shredder, but very articulate in his toning, even at 500 miles an hour over the neck of a Gibson Les Paul or Fender Telecaster, B.B. King called Bonamassa “One of a Kind” and in the 16 years that I’ve known Joe, his talent and potential has remained on the same cosmic level that was recognized very early on (check out this 1994 performance on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night Show), yet the execution of his guitar playing in combination with his vocals has gone through the roof since then.
So it was not a surprise when Bloodline broke up about a year after the album release. I’m just happy to have been one of the few who saw him live playing the album in the Cotton Club in Atlanta in 1994.
A couple of years later Joe tried one more band project called Gasoline. The fact that this one does not even show up in his Wikipedia bio makes me think I may be one of the very few people left with a track record of Joe’s work in that band. Clearly however it missed his blistering guitar work. He was searching for melody in his development as a musician, rather than being recognized as a prodigy. Clapton went through that phase in the early 70s when he hooked up with Bonnie and Delaney.
Joe’s Musical Education
In the several years that followed his management guided and financed him in developing his singing and writing skills. It’s something Joe always realized; being a gifted guitar player is one thing, being an all around singer, songwriter and musician is something totally different.
In 2000 Joe and his manager and friend (jr-adventures) Roy Weisman decided it was time to introduce Joe Bonamassa to the world as a solo act, backed up by the bass/percussion engine room formed by New York musicians Eric Czar on bass and Kenny Kramer on drums. Joe recorded Ian Anderson’s (Jethro Tull) New Day Yesterday and showed the world how to make that song you’re own and bringing Blues-rock with one swift kick back into the spotlights. Even Martin Barre (Tull’s lead guitar) said that the song had found a new owner.
Joe repeated that feat a couple more times during his career with cover tune arrangements that seemingly belonged to established guitar Gods, notably with Jeff Beck/Rod Stewart’s Blues Deluxe in 2003 and several years later he blew Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page out of the water when Joe recorded his interpretation of Tea for One.
It was rumored that Jimmy Page during an interview had called Joe’s guitar blistering lead irritated a “Show off move”.
My ‘intimate” history with Joe goes back to that first Freebird show when Ric and I and our little group represented about the entire crowd that night. I had moved fulltime back to the Caribbean Island of St.Maarten at the time and was just visiting. After not having seen Joe live in 8 years, he absolutely blew us away with his three piece band. Right then and there I decided to get Joe down to St.Maarten and soon.
After the show we talked music, availability and discussed fee, transportation and backline and we set the first week that next January as target. Those were the simple days. Joe, Kenny and Eric with girlfriends and wives were my guest for a Caribbean break and they did a magnificent concert on the beach in Great Bay St.Maarten for a crowd of about 600. We did another one 4 years later, but the first trip was legendary for several reasons. The next evening Joe showed up at a little hole in the wall called Texas Pit Barbecue (now a Chinese Restaurant-go figure) where local blues musicians jammed and even without any previous announcement, literally within minutes the place was sweaty body standing room only as local musicians were standing 3 rows deep waiting their turn to exchange licks with Joe. The finale had about 15 guitarists fighting blues guitar battles with their guitar necks. We smoked Cubans and had barbeque ribs. What a night.
The next day for lunch we were invited by the owner of a beach bar/restaurant on Friar’s Bay to join him for lunch and enjoy the afternoon at the beach. We took my Fender 60W Tube Amp that could be turned to French side’s 220V electrical system and Joe’s 1962 “Red Guitar” Gibson and had a blast; so much actually that Joe forgot his favorite guitar and I lost my brandnew digital camera (unfortunately with some once in a lifetime pictures on it). The owner of the bar called me in the early evening about the guitar and Joe was already asleep, and a red 1962 Gibson Les Paul belonging to Joe B.became my mistress for the night.
In the daytime Joe took the local buses around the island during his stay, while Kenny and Eric with spouses choose the Caribbean waters and our powerboat as their domain. Joe and his girlfriend at the time Caroline, loved immersing in the local culture, and I was proud getting phone calls from people around the island who saw Joe on a bus or sidewalk café. On one occasion I spent hours with Joe talking about music and his influences and his favorites. The then recently released album “So It’s Like That” was Number One Blues Billboard at the time, but was in my taste more Blues Rock that Blues, yet magnificent. His favorite song on that album was the Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired “Pain and Sorrow”, mine was The Mother Load, a song that is not printed on the track list, but if you let the CD run to the end, it all at once comes up unannounced.
Joe told me he was anxious to go back into the studio and do a real blues album, just to lay to rest any doubters who had him down as a Rock guitar player dabbling in the blues genre. We discussed covers and I suggested he’d listen to Rod Stewart’s “Blues Deluxe” with Jeff Beck on guitar. To my surprise several months later I got a pre-release CD of the Blues Deluxe album, as the kind of album that Joe just had to make; truly smoking playing, shot through with a low down blues feel. When I heard the title track I completely understood what makes Joe Bonamassa the musician and person he is.
As with “If Heartaches Were Nickels” from his first album, Joe attacked “Blues Deluxe” in a vocal key slightly above his natural abilities (at the time), knowing that his passion would get him through, backed by his incredible guitar virtuosity. And he did…
Joe is all about passion build into perfection. When I saw him at Freebird Café in 2002, I realized beyond the shadow of a doubt that, contrary to popular belief, people are just not born equal. Very few people have the natural ability to play guitar like Joe Bonamassa. It requires a unique set of motoric and mental functions to have both hands with 5 fingers each, 2 wrists, 2 elbows and two shoulders, independently operated by brain instructions, to fluently move from a ripping hard rock shred to a beautifully melodic blues setting, to a dissonant jazz progression, to flawless high speed flamenco you would only expect from someone like Paco de Lucia or Django Reinhard. Joe has in my opinion no weakness on guitar. Lots of famous lead guitar players are very poor rhythm players. Listen to “Woke up dreaming” from that third album and try to imitate his hand speed, even without holding a guitar, than you’ll know what I mean.
And in all the years I have seen and heard Joe play, he always had that ability. If you don’t believe that statement that check out this video from 1989 with Danny Gatton when Joe was 12 and had just opened for B.B. King for the first time. Joe’s progress over the past ten years can only be understood by measuring the relentless match of his instrumental ability with his voice and stage presence.
When I saw Joe last week at the Florida Theatre I realized that he has superstardom still in his future, as he has become an amazing vocalist and showman as well, a vocalist who is not afraid to belt it out with precision. And with Carmine Rojas on bass, Rick Melick on keyboards and the inimitable Bogie Bowles on drums, he has completed his orchestration, at least for where he is at this stage of his incredible musical accomplishments.
In over 45 years of music passion and guitar playing, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as ‘The Best” guitarist, but Joe these days is in about every conversation on that subject. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, anywhere, with his combination of technical proficiency, coupled with a fiery desire to pour his heart and soul out through his guitar….not to mention the soulful vocals!
When I first met Joe in 1994, he traveled by van; when I went to see him in Milwaukee in 2005, he had a tour bus; last week he had 2 tourbuses and an 18 wheeler in front of the Florida Theatre. Yet Joe is still Joe, the “kid” who loves to travel on a local bus around the island of St.Maarten (He told me he would love to go back for a vacation) and never forgets his fans.
Joe’s recognition has been a long way coming as he reminisced during last week’s show at the Florida Theatre, obviously happy to see a sold out F’orida Theatre. Needing to fill a couple of minutes for his roadcrew to replace a blown Amp, Joe recalled his first show in Jacksonville in 2002. For historians, it must have been early October or so and the venue was the legendary Freebird Café at the Beach.
For Joe it was a Monday night pick up gig on his tour, and a disappointing one at that for the young guitarist, singer/ songwriter. Even though he had already charted a Number 1 album on the Blues Billboard top 100 with “A New Day Yesterday”, followed by another number 1 score with “So It’s Like That”, there were only a handful of people in the audience that night. It didn’t help that the Freebird events calendar showed “closed for renovation” on the roster, he said, before displaying a huge smile as he exclaimed: And look now: “We sold out the Florida Theatre!”
I keep my fingers crossed that one day we can sign Joe as the headliner for our newly formed Amelia Island Blues Festival. We know he would make for an incredible show.
Free Download Tips:
Get some Free Downloads from Joe’s latest endeavors. He did a project recently with some of England’s rock icons, such as Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham under the name Black Country Communion.
The song One Last Soul is a badass rock song and album on which Joe obviously satisfies his bluesrock English influences, while on www.jbonamassa.com you can download “Santa Claus is Back in Town” with a fiery lead guitar and a memorable Blues Christmas.