The name may not roll off the tongue like it does with Stevie Ray or Hendrix or Clapton, but Joe Bonamassa’s fingers slide up and down the guitar fret board with the same explosive energy as those masters. Only 32, but a professional guitarist for over 20 years (he opened up for BB King when he was 12), the electrifying performer has built a world wide reputation and following based on non-stop touring and word-of-mouth accolades – once you see him, there’s no going back. Just ask the fans in Israel who packed the Reading 3 club last year for Bonamassa’s local debut.
“I definitely thought I was an unknown entity in Israel, until 1,200 people showed up at the club that night,” the affable native of Utica, New York told The Jerusalem Post this week from Manchester, England, as he readied to perform at that city’s Apollo Theater.
“They started singing the lyrics back to me, and I thought, ‘what the hell is going on here?’ It was a pretty touching gig, one of the most memorable I’ve ever done.”
A year later, Bonamassa is returning, not as an unknown entity, but as a larger-than-life guitar hero. Instead of Reading 3, he’s appearing at the larger, more prestigious Haifa Auditorium on November 1 and The Tel Aviv Opera House the next night.
“It’s gratifying in the sense that, A: I am moving up to a bigger venue, and B: When you think about it, I’m just a kid from upstate New York, and how does the music I make in my bedroom make it to Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv? It’s pretty astounding,” he said.
Despite the show biz trappings of a glamorous girlfriend – Scottish singer/songwriter Sandi Thorn who became a sensation two years ago with her song “I Wish I was a Punk Rocker with Flowers in My Hair” – Bonamassa has preferred to take the slow and steady workmanlike route instead striving for the big payload of a hit record and the covers of tabloids that come along with it.
“I think that’s the way to go if you want to stick around for awhile. And it has its advantages. For me, people come to my shows and they’re not disappointed if I don’t play my hits, because I really don’t have any,” he chuckled, adding that he’s resisted advice to make himself more commercial.
“I’ve been told to change my last name, I’ve been told to try to sound more like John Mayer, a million different suggestions. Eventually, I decided I have to stick to my guns or I have to go home and quit. It’s better stick to your guns and find out your were wrong and fail that way, at least you didn’t sell yourself short. That would have been very unfulfilling.”
BONAMASSA HASN’T sold himself short ever since he picked up his first guitar at age five. Of course, it helped that his parents owned and ran a guitar shop in Utica. Through their encouragement, and thanks to their vast record collection of classic British rock like Free, Cream, and Rory Gallagher, he soon found himself gravitating toward the blues. By age seven he was playing Stevie Ray Vaughn note for note.
“I was 8 or 9, when I realized I had something… and I was able to play stuff I heard on records,” said Bonamassa. “My father would say, ‘that’s pretty good son, try this.’ But you know, he kept me humble, and wanting to learn more.”
By 11, he was being mentored by American guitar great Danny Gatton, who exposed him to country, jazz and hard rock, but Bonamassa’s passion was – and remained – the heavy blues rock that British bands of the 1970s specialized in. “Artists like Free and the Jeff Beck Band and Humble Pie made music that I found dangerous and it had more swagger,” said Bonamassa. “A Les Paul channeled through a Marshall stack is much more appealing to an eight-year-old kid than listening to authentic Delta blues. In the age of ADD and trying to keep your interest, that was how I gravitated toward the British blues – Zeppelin and all those bands – it was louder and faster.”
When he sat in at age 12 with Gatton, opening up for BB King in New York, King reportedly responded, “This kid’s potential is unbelievable. He hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface. He’s one of a kind.”
Amid that heady praise and the dedication to his guitar, Bonamassa recalled that he attempted to lead a regular childhood, even though his musical taste and knowledge dwarfed those of his peers. “The kids I grew up with didn’t get what I was into. They thought “Layla” was a new song by Eric Clapton that he did with the Unplugged thing in the ’90s,” he said.
“Everybody’s childhood is different, and it’s hard to define what exactly is normal. But yeah, I did normal things, and at the same time, my parents nurtured my career and passion for music,” he said, adding that even the elements in upstate New York contributed to his concentration on his music. “The weather was also sometime inhospitable – all there was to do was to stay inside and practice.”
Practice makes perfect, and by the time he was 14, Bonamassa was recruited for a ‘super group’ called Bloodline, featuring the sons of first generation rock heroes – Berry Oakley Jr., the son of late Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley, Miles Davis’s son Erin and The Doors Robbie Krieger’s son Waylon. That led to appearances, guest slots and collaborations with a who’s who of blues rock, ranging from Buddy Guy and Robert Cray to Steve Winwood, and Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann), and resulted in his first solo album at the tender age of 21, 2000’s A New Day Yesterday
A regular interval of releases has followed, demonstrating Bonamassa’s growth and maturity, including 2007’s Sloe Gin
, 2009’s The Ballad of John Henry
and this year’s Black Rock, recorded on the Greek island of Santorini.
NO EXPERIENCE better reflected how far Bonamassa had traveled since he was a child prodigy as when he performed to a sold out audience last year at Royal Albert Hall in London. During the show, Bonamassa stated that the first song that he learned to play was the blues standard “Further on up the Road” and he then introduced Eric Clapton who came out to play the song with him.
“It was surreal experience – one of those things where you think, ‘oh, my God, I can’t believe I pulled this off,’” recalled Bonamassa at the memory of trading licks with Clapton and, at least according to YouTube recordings of it, more than holding his own.
“Eric was a true gentleman and it’s something that I’ll never forget. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s over a year later and we’re still talking about it. It was such a gesture on his part, and such a helping hand to my career. I can never repay him for that kind of generosity.”
While the blues remain Bonamassa’s true love, he’s also been able to amuse his inner rock child this year as part of another ‘super’ group, Black Country Communion. Assembled by his producer, Kevin Shirley, the hard-rocking band brought Bonamassa together with ex-Black Sabbath and Deep Purple vocalist Glenn Hughes, all-star drummer Jason Bonham and ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian.
“We’re not a super group, we’re just friends brought together by Kevin,” said Bonamassa. “I think we’ll survive a couple records. I don’t see it as my day job. I see it as a fun thing we can do get together after our various laps around the globe, and solo projects We just get together and have fun with an early ’70s throwback hard rock sound, which is a lot of fun for me. All blues purists have been telling me for years ‘why don’t you go join a hard rock band?’ Well fine, now they got their wish.”
Indulging his rock fantasies aside, attendees of Bonamassa’s Israel
shows will get to see his core band doing what they do best – rock the
house with a potent mixture of his original material and an eclectic
selection of covers, that has been known to include everything from
Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” to Yes’s “Starship Trooper”/”Wurm.”
A question as to whether a knock off of “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker” may
be in the offing resulted in Bonamassa responding, “Sandi’s sitting
right next to me. Let me ask her. ‘Sweetheart, the journalist from
Jerusalem wants to know if I might do a cover of “I Wish I Was a Punk
rocker” – what would you think?’
After a few seconds, he returned to the phone. “She says she would dump
me. So I don’t think I’ll be doing a version of it too soon.”
One thing Bonamassa would like to do for his shows here, however, is
hook up with Oz Noy, the virtuoso Israeli guitarist who divides his time
between Tel Aviv and New York, where his is a much in-demand studio
“I’m a real fan of his – he’s a fantastic guitar player, and a really
nice guy,” said Bonamassa. “I don’t know if he’s in town, but I’m
friends with a couple guys who know him, so I’ll see if he’s around.
He’d be a great guy to play with.”
So Oz, if you’re reading this, there’s a spot stage center waiting for
you in Haifa and Tel Aviv. Just don’t expect to win any guitar duels
with Joe Bonamassa.