When people debate about modern-day guitarists, there are few that rival the ability, versatility and reliability of New York state native and blues contemporary Joe Bonamassa.
Performing professionally since he was 12 years old, Bonamassa is a prolific musician, releasing more than an album annually and touring worldwide constantly for the last decade, reaching millions of people with his incredible guitar playing.
The past year was no different than the last 10 as Bonamassa released multiple live albums and DVDs from performances in Amsterdam with collaborator Beth Hart and intimate clubs like NYC’s Iridium Jazz Club, as well as his first solo album with exclusively original material.
Bonamassa’s discography is an eclectic blend of worldly genres from folk to jazz and metal, all rooted in the emotion and nostalgia of the blues. His soulful vocals and unbelievable technical guitar playing transcend the boundaries of genres to create something unique that envelops many styles of music.
With all the influence and reference in Bonamassa’s music, one thing remains strikingly clear: the 37-year-old has both evolved the genre and reaffirmed the blues as quintessential, both in the studio and on stage, and shows no signs of slowing down.
I had the opportunity to speak with Bonamassa just before he went on stage in Orlando in December about the current state of the blues, his new album and upcoming performances at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
In 2014 you released your first LP, Different Shades Of Blue, full of original material after nearly a decade of releasing album after album. What made you switch up your approach to a record?
Well, I just thought it was the time to do it. I went to Nashville, got together with a bunch of really great cats and started writing. I was really proud of the fact that I forced myself to do it like that.
To cover a blues tune is not easy, I mean, it is easy if you want to do it poorly. A lot of time we would rewrite the tune and by the time you’re done, you want to write one yourself. That was kind of the impetus of me not being lazy and just doing it to see how it comes out.
Speaking of covers, you feature many in your live performances, ranging on the spectrum of the blues. What makes playing these songs so exciting?
I think it’s exciting to reinvent a tune. It’s exciting to reinvent yourself and basically make something new out of it.
Like Freddie King. He does a great job on “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” and almost owns the tune. At the end of the day, how you put your own personality and fingerprint on it is really what makes the difference.
You’ve been on the road constantly and recording plenty in 2014, and stripped down your setup for the latest album and tour. What sorts of things are you doing differently now?
Well if you’re talking about equipment, my entire rig has changed. I basically use now 100 percent vintage tweed amps; I don’t use any effects anymore. I just plug in and play and let the chips fall.
It’s been a real inspiration to be honest with you. I think it’s really something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. There’s no time like the present.
The album definitely has that raw sound prevalent throughout.
Yeah! That’s what I was going for.
With people like yourself and other blues contemporaries like Gary Clark Jr. and The Black Keys breaking into mainstream radio and topping record charts, what do you see as the current state of the blues?
The current state of the blues is honestly what any artist is willing to make of it. It’s not a situation that you would go, “Okay, well I play blues, blues is doing well, people are going to come out and see me just because the genre is doing well.”
You know, Gary Clark and The Black Keys and Jack White and all the contemporaries in their late 20s and early 30s, they have almost in a sense masked the blues. When younger generations listen to that music they don’t realize they’re listening to the blues. They’ve been able to kind of serve it up on a different platter. And I think that’s awesome.
I really dig what Gary Clark is doing with the blues. I really, really respect Dan Auerbach for his production and the fact that he really reenergized the genre. And Jack White always has some really interesting things that he does.
It all kind of comes out of a very Mississippi Delta place. I think it’s happening, it’s really happening.
You’ve been performing professionally since you were a child, sharing the stage with many blues legends from B.B. King to Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. How is it performing alongside some of the great guitarists in the genre?
My common answer to this question is how do you think it is? The fact that you can actually look over to your side and there’s your hero, and you’re playing a song that you love and you’re both listening to; playing with that voice and that band. You’re a lucky guy!
I’ve been very lucky to be on stage with these guys. This year I’m 25 years in since my first professional gig and it’s really a honor to be able to play music for a living for this long.
There also has to be an incredible adrenaline rush on stage with iconic bluesmen.
Yeah, I mean, any time I pick up a guitar and go play, regardless whether it’s with B.B. King or Ben E. King, there’s something inside you that turns over. It’s just a spark and that inner fire drives you to that place.
Coming up at the end of January, you’ll be performing two nights at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City. What sort of impression do you hope to leave at your biggest theater show Stateside?
The same impression I hope to leave in two and a half hours after I get off stage here in Orlando. There’s no difference, you know? I’m very honored to be playing Radio City Music Hall and I think it’s one of the greatest honors any performer could ever achieve, to be on Sixth Avenue, between 50th and 51st, playing at the legendary venue.
But it certainly does not take away from the fact that every time I go on stage I want people to know that I give 100 percent of whatever I have. I want people to walk out thinking it was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen. That’s my goal. Every night.
Last year was extremely busy for you, constantly touring, releasing live albums, DVDs, studio records and more. What do you hope to achieve this coming new year in 2015?
Well we’re making a new record, and we’re moving to Nashville. And we’re booked up until February 2016 or 2017, I don’t even know. Next year we’re taking out the horns and doing a bit of a double show. I’m excited.
We’re going to do a small amphitheater tour this coming summer in the U.S., doing the music of the “Three Kings” (Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King), and we’re going to do a bunch of our regular shows. It’s the same deal.
Joe Bonamassa performs at Radio City Music Hall in NYC on Jan. 23 and 24. The Radio City shows will be recorded for future DVD/CD release. For more information, go to jbonamassa.com.