Calgary Bluesfest (2009)
Blues-rock guitar virtuoso, vocalist and songwriter Joe Bonamassa kicked off 2007 with the honor of being named Best Blues Guitarist by Guitar Player Magazine’s readership in their annual Reader’s Choice Awards. The year continues with the release of Sloe Gin, Bonamassa’s seventh solo album, and fourth on his own J&R Adventures label. A mix of heavy blues, big rock and textured acoustic tracks that Joe says was in part inspired by Rod Stewart’s legendary 1969 debut solo LP, it reunites him with producer Kevin Shirley (Joe Satriani, Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin).
Shirley previously produced Bonamassa’s You & Me, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Blues chart in June 2006 (all of Joe’s albums have either hit #1 or gone Top 10). Modern Guitars Magazine called the disc, “one of the best blues-rock CDs to come about in quite a while…destined to be a classic.” NPR host George Graham wrote, “Almost four decades ago, British rockers who played bluesy guitar became the heroes on their instruments, people like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Joe Bonamassa carries on that tradition…Bonamassa is in every way their equal.”
Widely renowned for his insanely fluid phrasing and post-modern fusion of electric British blues, traditional Delta blues and rock ‘n roll chops, Bonamassa Told Guitar Player in ’05, “When I play blues, I try to think a little outside the box, while still paying tribute to the founding fathers like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.” His latest work pushes the envelope even further – “Sloe Gin,” says Joe, “is different than anything I’ve ever done. We bettered You & Me. The songs are more refined, and I was concentrating on them as a whole rather than only thinking about a 50-bar guitar solo. Also, singing is a bigger part of it for me than ever before, and it’s awesome to have that space – to connect with fans on a musical and lyrical level.”
The difference Joe alludes to is apparent in the album’s rougher, bigger and more iconoclastic sound, a visceral punch he attributes to Kevin Shirley. “He takes my vision, augments it, and brings it further than I ever would have thought to,” says Joe, specifically citing the title track, a slamming, raw blues-rock epic. “I never would have found that one on my own,” he says, “or gone where Kevin went with it.” Shirley found the song, written by Bob Ezrin & Michael Kamen, on Tim Curry’s obscure ’78 debut LP. Bonamassa inhabits its rough edges and melancholy force, vocally and instrumentally, as if it was created just for him. Live performances of “Sloe Gin” are drawing major fan and Internet buzz. “A few bars in,” Joe says, “people are singing along. It’s going to be the biggest song we’ve ever had.”
Among Sloe Gin’s other stand-outs are the originals “Another Kind Of Love,” “India” and “Dirt In My Pocket,” the Chris Whitley-penned “Ball Peen Hammer,” Joe’s adaptation of the Ten Years After classic, “One Of These Days,” and smokin’ versions of Paul Rodgers’ “Seagull” and the John Martin blues nugget “Jelly Roll.” The disc effortlessly ranges, tonally and stylistically, across diverse sonic boundaries, featuring a stellar line-up of: CBS Orchestra/Letterman show stalwart Anton Fig on drums & percussion, ace bassist Carmine Rojas, keyboardist Rick Melick and Bogie Bowles on drums and hammer dulcimer (all but Fig also comprise Joe’s touring band). Joe says, “I sequenced the album as a throwback to the Side A/Side B set-up of vinyl records…listening to an album as a whole is a lost pastime. I wanted to bring that experience back around.”
Born in Utica, NY on May 8, 1977 – the day that would have been blues icon Robert Johnson’s 66th birthday – the now L.A.-based Joe Bonamassa’s own musical experience began with playing guitar at age four on a short-scale Chiquita given to him by his father, a guitar dealer and player himself. By the time he was seven, he’d stepped up to a full-scale model and was uncannily mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. At ten, he was gigging at venues in upstate New York, where he came to the legendary B.B. King’s attention. After initially hearing Bonamassa play, King – who personally asked Joe to open for his landmark 2005 80th birthday celebration tour – said, “This kid's potential is unbelievable. He hasn't even begun to scratch the surface. He's one of a kind.”
By the time he was twelve, Joe was touring with King, which led to opening slots for many other stars including Buddy Guy, Foreigner, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker and Gregg Allman. Storied producer Phil Ramone once said of him, “prodigies come few and far between. I saw him take an audience apart.” Bonamassa’s journeyman touring has built an audience of fans as legion and generation-spanning as his famed collaborators, and his live shows – over 150 a year – are breathtaking in their intensity. Beatles promoter Sam Leach compared the first time he saw Joe to his initial glimpse of the Fab Four at the Cavern Club – “I got that same feeling of excitement…Joe is the premiere Blues/Rock artist on the planet.”
Joe’s recording career launched in the early ’90s when he met Berry Oakley, Jr., son of the Allman Brothers Band bassist, and they formed Bloodlines, also featuring Robby Krieger’s son Waylon and Miles Davis’ son Erin. They released a self-titled CD praised for its hard-charging fusion of blues, funk, boogie and roadhouse rock. The full range of Bonamassa’s talents, though, came into sharper relief after the group disbanded. His virtuoso playing finally had the room it needed, and his strength as an expressive singer emerged. “I started belting things out and found this voice I never knew I had,” he says. “I’d play around with emulating some of my favorite singers, Paul Rodgers, Gregg Allman, Rod Stewart. Ultimately, it’s allowed me a freedom as an artist I hadn’t felt before.”
Bonamassa’s solo debut was 2000’s Top 10 disc A New Day Yesterday, named for the 1969 Jethro Tull hit that Joe steals with what allmusic.com calls, “a jaw-dropping performance.” Produced by the late, legendary Tom Dowd, the album features guest shots by Gregg Allman, Rick Derringer and Leslie West, among others. The powerhouse original “Miss You, Hate You” remains a cornerstone of Joe’s repertoire, as does the slide guitar showcase “Cradle Rock.” He followed it up in ’02 with his first #1 album So, It's Like That, including the tour de force “Pain And Sorrow.”
Blues Deluxe came next in 2003 (the “Year Of The Blues”), and is Bonamassa’s soulful tribute to the genre. In the liner notes, Harris Cohen says that Joe, “never loses touch with the raw emotion that makes the blues what it is.” Former Creem editor Jaan Uhelszki wrote, “New York guitar phenom walks tall in the blues tradition…jettisoning fiery riffs inspired by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Elmore James, and Albert Collins into the future with furious playing, a hard-rock sensibility, and a grizzled voice that owes a debt to Gregg Allman.” Bonamassa’s forward propulsion of the blues continued with 2004’s Had To Cry Today, a sweltering fusion of fresh and classic sounds including covers of songs by Blind Faith (the title track), Ten Years After, Lowell Fulsom and others. It earned the Album Of The Year award from the readers of BluesWax, the world’s largest subscribed blues publication.
The publication’s audience went on to name Bonamassa the BluesWax Artist Of The Year 2005, making him the first two-time winner of the award. When the honor was announced in early ’06, BluesWax reported that Joe took the title with a record number of first place votes. It was a sweet lead-in to the spring 2006 release of You & Me, and its scorching sequence of tracks including the signature original “Bridge To Better Days,” Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” – Joe’s tribute to New Orleans – “So Many Roads” (a blues gem made famous by Otis Rush) and Led Zeppelin’s “Tea For One,” adorned with a full orchestra and “Bonzo” heir Jason Bonham on drums.
With 2007’s Sloe Gin, Bonamassa’s redefinition of the blues-rock art form continues to evolve as does his own identity as one of contemporary music’s most profoundly talented stars. Joe is also highly respected for his Blues In The Schools program, which educates students nationwide about the legacy and influence of the blues.