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Joe Bonamassa

Wood & Steel ….and Fatback & Funk

-       Ace draw JOE BONAMASSA discusses his acoustic shows releases and his ghetto funk outing album the lowdown on his pending London shows

I owe JB one – last time we spoke he was happy to chat about his love for the music of Rory Gallagher which helped me create a fan-the-flames piece on the Rory remastered albums, to complement the actual album reviews and which no less than our mutual friend Donal Gallagher seemed to like. THIS time we are going to talk Joe Bonamassa which he does, along with bursts of electric guitar down the phoneline to LA, by way of emphasis ( and which I shall of course be bootlegging to his large fanbase….)

FH: Hey thanks Joe – and thanks again for the Rory piece we did

JB: Oh, my pleasure, Pete – love his music, always know,.in THIS country ( Joe’s in Los Angeles – PS) he doesn’t often come up in musical conversations, but you and I know that he SHOULD…such a talented and original guy…

Now I want to talk about you and what you’re up to today, please -so for an agenda, well I have been listening to your new acoustic album ( ‘An Acoustic Evening at The Vienna Opera House’ – CD and DVD ) on a private link and made a couple of notes, also the funk album you cut with your mates ( ‘ We Want Groove’ ) PLUS ! we have your upcoming ‘Four Steps To Notoriety’ set of shows in London to discuss, maybe…

( Fired up ) Well that you couldn’t get any more diverse than that, really !  Let’s go with that

Now what impresses me about the acoustic show albums is you don’t seem to settle into one groove, it really is all the kinds of music you like and want to play So was that the intention from the outset, Joe ?

So we decided to do this acoustic show and Kevin Shirley put together the band. This actually was instead of my original intention of probably doing the show entirely on my own with a bunch of guitars, saying a few things about each number and going through the setlist. Now originally, it was going to be a one-off event. But then of course you only get one shot at  it ! (Laughs). And you can’t redeem yourself !  But then North Sea Jazz and some other venues wanted us to appear as well, so this solo one off show was now becoming a set of gigs with a band. That band included Gerry O’Connor on fiddle and also mandolin and banjo, the amazing Mats Wester on the nycklharpa which is a type of keyed fiddle, also Arlan Schierbaum on all sorts of and he’s from L.A. And then of course, the pride of Puerto Rico  Mr Lenny Castro, on percussion. The word to describe what we were approaching I guess was.. ‘worldly’… traditional piano, harmonium,accordion and stuff like that. In my mind, it was at various points sort of what would Ry Cooder do? What would Peter Gabriel do – in that situation? And essentially that’s kind of like the feel of what we were going for. Do different things, take chances, re-arrange this or that

It just sounds like the sort of lineup of players that would score a film. That’s what it sound like to me and I do like that kind of music. I like music that will take me somewhere different. I try to play that myself and I like to listen to it. This number ‘Palm Trees’ – what kind of guitar are you using on that?

That was a Martin D 41.

It’s got these hard solo lines and the ascending line is slightly kind of sinister. It’s almost like rock flamenco isn’t it?

Yeah it is. A lot of it is ripped right out of Dimeola’s playbook. Do ya know what I mean?

I saw Return to Forever with him, with Lenny White and Chick and Stanley Clarke…fine players but Jeez I was bored…endless solo bits

Sometimes with my fusion guys we play bits of ‘Romantic Warrior’ or ‘The Sorcerer’

Oh the tricksy tempo’s.f.air enough .Sometimes on this album your playing has a touch of the late Michael Hedges…

Oh yeah!   - I know about him. Really fantastic acoustic player.

And user of tones and effects with the acoustic, especially on ‘Aerial Boundaries’.

Oh yeah – so atmospheric. For that style of reflective music,Tommy Emmanuel is a great player too – for those classic mood pieces. He’s a real innovator. But the first person I think of really is John Martyn in this inventive acoustic guitar material zone.

First folk artist I ever saw! In a dark church crypt in Richmond, Surrey in winter, opening for Patrick Sky. The next track on this set “Jelly Roll’ I first heard at that very gig, played by Martyn. It is a very strong vocal on your versiont. Do you bring in your own mikes?

At this point for the acoustic shows, Pete we’re bringing everything in. We bring the PA, mikes, monitors, cables. To me it’s always best to do that, even bringing in our own chairs!.

That’s going a bit far isn’t it?

My production manger and myself were determined to leave nothing to chance because sod’s law says of course that on the day of filming, you won’t be able to find five matching chairs!

There are some fan favourites in the set and one such is ‘Dust Bowl’ in particular which is a popular track. It’s got very desert feel to it. Where were you when you wrote that?

Well I was in Greece when I wrote it. It was the summer in San Torini. It was one of those songs that sounds like a throwback to the John Ford era film scenery.  I did see a fantastic documentary on the dust bowls in America, not that long ago..that probably helped that song come about, to be honest.

Did you see that film ‘Chinatown’ with Jack Nicholson? He’s a private eye and the film has a reallyclaustrophobic brooding atmosphere.

No, that’s a movie I must check out if it has that atmosphere, I think

( We talk about world influences on guitarists and I mention Frank Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ where the phrases tumble rapidly out of Frank’s fingers and that Greek influence is very definitely there in the tension and waspish runs, all through a wahwah pedal)    .

The first time I heard Bouzouki music someone said it sounded like Dimeola but I said no HE sounds like THEM. It’s the other way round, cause if you hear the traditional musicians in Greece the runs are all threaded in there. That influences musicians I other countries – if they get to hear it

The other number is ‘Athens to Athens’ for those that seems to work in this acoustic context. Its got a Bert Jansch feel to it which really works in this se.

That was one of the easier one to adapt, really because of the musicians we had in the band. We thought it would be cool to include it, with that instrumentation aboard

Then again,’From the Valley’ has some eerie slide and that’s a Cooder moment for me.

Oh yeah. Agreed on that

The ‘Ballad of John Henry’ that was an album title of yours wasn’t it?

Yeah that was the album that kinda put me on the map several years back. Still a favourite with some fans, when  get to meet them

I can see why you would include that song, with that lineup.

( Laughs) It’s one of the vast cavalcade of hits I’ve had! Nothing but the hits!

I will tell you my favourite on this record and you’ll probably guess it anyway. I absolutely love ‘Dislocated Boy’. The reason is. it’s using like a Bill Withers tempo and I think that is really great choice and performance

Yeah that came out good that song. I like that song. I like ‘Slow Train’ and I particularly really like ‘Sloe Gin’ just with the xylophone.

Well ‘Slow Train’ has that railway tempo which increases in pace which is always a good stage thing to do. Why did you choose to end with ‘Sloe Gin’?

‘Sloe Gin’ is good it’s the encore that leads into ‘Seagull’ and it’s a ramped up version. It a great end of the moment for the show.

Now what the **** is a ‘ball peen hammer’?

It’s a type of hammer where the head of the hammer is shaped like a ball. Used to drive in like, nails or horseshoes.

Clawhammer guitar on this, almost ‘Dear Prudence’ in delivery

Yeah that suits the song..the ‘Prudence’ mention I do get

It’s the style that Donovan Leitch taught John Lennon..

Really ? that’s cool, I didn’t know that….

( This acoustic album sound crystal clear but not sterile, thanks to the standard of playing. Anyhow we now move the conversation on, to talk about ‘ We Want Groove’ by Rock Candy Funk Party and is a jazz-funk outing, nodding to loads of folk who inspired fusion / jammin’ type players. Performed this well it is hard-to-resist music. Guitars wah, bass thrums, keys twinkle, drummer seems to have a real grip on the style of music – PS)

Now this is a band that we put together to have groove with eg to playsongs and rhythms

in the styles that so influenced us..the band is me, Tal Bergman on drums, Ron deJesus on guitar, Mike Merritt on bass and Renato Neto on keys. Everything we play is to Serve tha Funk. It’s the kinda night music we all like, so that should be reflected in the delivery. Luckily most everyone managed to get into the material contribution and put the tunes together. The big question was – do we want flashy solo’s everywhere ?   When we thought about it, to make the act work we oughta concentrate on the melodies and get attention that way, in the knowledge that the band has enough appeal and variety to put before audiences and hopefully not just other players. So…can we maybe

not have everybody solo on every tune ?   You could make it the most self-indulgent album ever, you could do that. HOWEVER the great records that Tal and I and everybody in the band really love are these records like ‘We Want Miles’ and tracks like ‘Jean Pierre’ you know – songs. Fusion is a dirty word in some circles.  It’s the same thing that has happened with the blues where blues is not a bad word. But maybe a few too many bands have played ‘Mustang Sally’ a few too many times! But what we were going for was a tuneful jamming sound maybe a bit like the band called Stuff.

Oh yeah – Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree

Well with this set of players, we are really where the key references are well known by everybody. You know like Prince and Joe Zawinul, who put  fusion bands together and it worked, you know. Especially Ron, wow he’s a great rhythm player and he plays that funk thing so very well.

A crisp sound yeah. It has a touch of Eric Gale

Eric Gale always had a great tone because he usually used an MXR, a cheap phaser or something 70s and similar

Especially on Grover Washington stuff like ‘Moonstreams’.  The last track( ‘ New York Song’) fascinates me, a slow groove that cries out for an Isaac Hayes type commentary

We kept kinda hearing the voiceover ghost and we were like who should we reach out to? Then – let’s go for the gold – Bill Shatner!! ah but he didn’t want to do it.

I’m much cheaper and deeper. There’s Wes Montgomery style guitar on there. Is that you?

Yeah,me – channelling Wes and maybe a touch of Charlie Christian.

The record has great long steady grooves among some twists and turns. Do you know the Alphonse Mouzon record ‘By All Means’ ? has Herbie Hancock all,over ot and the guitar is Rit (Lee Ritenour – PS)

I’ll check it out cos Rit is a neighbour of mine here funnily enough I just got into that Herbie Hancock record ‘Manchild’…some very good bits on that one

( Fans of instrumental funk should waste no time checking this album out – others steer well clear, though. I think it is fine and the players mesh beautifully – PS )

Now I want to ask you about the upcoming four venue London shows starting at the Borderline, Joe so without giving too much away – what’s in your head for those?

We will be doing a different show each day with a different configuration, that’s the plan. The first night at the Borderline its going to be Anton Fig on drums..

The Letterman TV show band drummer!

Yeah and Anton plays on all the records… ‘John Henry’ and just about everything else. And Michael Rhodes on the bass.

Wow! He plays with Jill Sobule and Rodney Crowell

The second night which we will do at Shepherds Bush will be horns time . All blues with a horn section.

Well we are going to be at that show, I have tickets. Now Joe, what do I do if someone offers me a price of a Rickenbacker for my JB tickets on the way in?

(Emphatically) Pete, you sell the tickets and you get the guitar!!

And then I can’t review the show!

That doesn’t matter man !  - Be sensible !! (laughs) Then for the Apollo it will be like a Bonamassa band rock blues gig with that kind of material and some audience favourites. Then finally for the Royal Albert Hall we will do an acoustic first set with band and thenmix it up for the second electric set, do the best of everything. Mostly the near-hits and so that will be two hours or therabouts, it will be split. And hopefully it will all make sense at the end of the run. So right now we’re rehearsing for three weeks to get all the tunes ready because we want to do mostly different songs every night.

That’s a cool idea because some people will be going to more than one show. So when you’re over here you’ll hole up in a hotel and work the week out there yes?

We are basically gonna be there about four days before and we have purchased every room in this hotel for that week because we have so many people coming in and out. It’s gonna be great but the most work we’ve ever done. It’s a great project. I think people will enjoy it, get along and rock instead of ….just watching TV with a brandy.

It cries out for a documentary of some kind.

Yeah we are recording everything. There’s gonna be a backstory and cameras all through the tour because we’re recording it and will slowly start adding the pieces as the tour goes on

So how do you get on with Kevin Shirley?

Well, you know he’s become a best friend and we’ve worked together for some eight years. What can you say? How do you quantify the contribution he makes to what I’m doing?

It’s been phenomenal how you’ve built your name up, but it’s been through gigging.

It’s about doing it the hard way but the right way. It’s not like I’ve come off a reality show or I’ve been spotted on ‘Come Dine with Me’. You don’t wanna be known for being on an episode of that!  To be honest with you I appeared on one ‘reality’ show a few years ago called ‘Supergroup’ on VH1 and they just rang me because they knew I was in Vegas and said hey would you mind appearing for a couple of minutes with Ted Nugent? And they want me to act surprised when Ted walks in as I’m playing so I said well that wouldn’t happen because we know each other and we might just agree to play a song or two together. But they wanted me to act like Ted appearing was a real shock. So I said that’s not real life and they said no but this is reality TV! Well…that’s not ‘real’ to me at all.  Never again !

That’s right. How can anyone think that cameras rolling creates anything other than an artifice ?

I think kids today don’t know the difference between the word ‘famous’ and ‘infamous’ and they don’t really give a **** anyway. They just want to drive up to Starbucks and go right to the front of the queue.

Back to music – I find people tag you forever with what they first see you doing – in my case ‘the harp player or ‘the deep voice singer’.

Yeah, you get typecast and that’s the problem. And it’s more so than anything , it’s people saying now sit neatly in this box. We can describe your life’s musical journey in five sentences or less or five words or less. ‘The Blues guy’….Hmmm… OK. And then you’re not allowed to be anything else ! (sighs)

I like those who shift it around like Steve Miller. And I do like these new albums of yours because they are varied and in my view entertaining.

Well thanks a lot. I appreciate that…see you in London

The acoustic releases on Provogue  ; for the fusion album check

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