just do everything, then"
With his childish face and fiendish grin, it's easy to imagine Joe Bonamassa (New Hartford, New York, 8th May 1977) answering in this way to the poor soul that had just given him some typical all-American advice: "Keep to what you know and just do your best". Clearly, he had no fear of becoming a jack of all trades and had no qualms in showing the world that at times, a jack of all trades can master them all. "I won't do much of it; I'll do it all". And do it all this blues merchant did.
Invited to share the stage with the late, great B.B. King when he was still wet behind the ears, Bonamassa is the perfect example of the six-string perfectionists that we see a lot of nowadays. Unbeatable supermen, untiring professionals who, as they wade down their ambitious path leaving a wake of solo albums behind them, pick up the unconditional admiration of some and the jealous sniping of others. Because, let's face it, there has only been one Maradona, but Messi fills his boots to perfection every weekend. There was also only one Pelé, one Di Stefano and even only the one unruly Cruyff. Here, we have a man who can beat anyone you care to mention at their own game. Be it picking, tapping, playing a riff or arpeggio, getting down and dirty or keeping it clean, Bonamassa can do it all on his electric guitar. And that gets our backs up.
Something even more annoying than his superlative talent is his incessant productivity. The 38-year-old has released more albums, either solo or in the company of others (29), than the number of years he has been in the music business (26). And they have sold well, regularly making it into the top ten of the US Billboard general and Blues lists more than anyone else. In fact, many believe that Bonamassa would happily sell his own mother if he thought it would advance him professionally (and perhaps financially, as well). His website puts even Amazon to shame, selling just about anything imaginable: t-shirts, bracelets, records, badges, tickets, toys… you name it, there’s merchandise for it. This is an emporium dedicated to his personal, fetishist, audio-visual and musical self. He even has his own weekly podcast. Joe loves the blues and squeezes every last drop of music, and money, out of it.
This devotion to the cause led him to set up the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, take part in the Blues in the Schools programme which helps connect schoolchildren with music's roots, and get involved with all kinds of group adventures, collaborations and just about anything he can get a kick out of. Whatever the project, he can be found working his magic on the six strings - for many, one of the best, and for virtually everyone, the most technically proficient guitarist there is. A dedicated follower of the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do" he basically plays whatever takes his fancy - and perfectly. Ironically, his elders in the blues world, Clapton, Satriani, Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy and Derek Trucks to name just a few, queue up to play alongside this walking “all you can eat” wholesaler to play a little delicatessen with him.
His dad was a guitar salesman, meaning that the diminutive Bonamassa could always be found romping around Rickenbackers and Les Pauls. And, just as other kids would drive us up the wall by playing with a ball indoors or banging a hammer, one day he grabbed the nearest guitar at hand and started to pick up the language of the frets and amp while at the same time learning how to dot his 'i's and cross his 't's at school. Before he had left primary school, he was already heading the band Smokin' Joe Bonamassa playing in the bars of New York's West End with "Rosie", the crimson '72 Strat given to him by his old man, a fan of '60s English blues and an expert in the black roots music of the '40s and '50s and whose records were a great inspiration to the youngster.
Being the opening act for the immense King, setting up a band called Bloodline with Erin Davies (son of Miles Davies), rhythm guitarist Waylon Krieger (son of Robby Krieger), and bassist and lead vocalist Berry Oakley Jr. (son of Berry Oakley) and releasing his first solo album ('A New Day Yesterday', 2000) produced by the legendary Tom Dowd, were not just signs of the great things to come, but also links in a chain that ensured he would become one of the biggest in the business. With the passing of the years, in 2005 Joe Bonamassa was chosen as the youngest member of the Blues Foundation of all time after once again supporting B.B. King on his 80th-birthday tour.
Basically, it's a case of 'been there, done that' for Bonamassa. He's played with everyone. He's played everything. Each musician has his own sound. Joe has all of theirs and can shapeshift to any style that takes his fancy. His albums range from blues to soul, with healthy doses of southern rock and American ballad and smatterings of heavy metal and symphonic music in between. He's also had his fair share of funk ('No Slack' being a fine example in 'So it's Like That', 2002) and even a go on the sitar ('India', the last track on 'Sloe Gin', 2007). Clearly, the man knows no boundaries.
Once he had outgrown the fret board (?!), he decided to take singing classes. He took leave of his group adventure and decided to strike out on his own. When he started to make a name for himself, he was quick to see that the best marketing was a change of image, slimming down his waist while fattening up his voice (the metamorphosis being most evident in 'Blues Deluxe', 2003). Once he'd mastered one style, with the skills of an illusionist he would move on to the next (his out-and-out American country sound in voice and resonator contrasted by dirty rock guitars and the musical backing of a classical orchestra in 'The Ballad of John Henry', 2009, is as good an example as any).
On stage, Bonamassa is able to let go with a Hendrix battle shriek, an Albert King blues structure or a lazy barbituric slide à la Allmann. And make them writhe in envy in their graves. He can turn up the heat like Gibbons, whip out the same closed-eye solos that Clapton is known and loved for and even let his hair down and give Page a run for his money. And on occasion he comes dangerously close to beating these music gods at their own game.
In the studio, Bonamassa emulates Gilmour's unmistakeable echo when performing unbelievable covers that, up until he got his hands on them, were thought to have been thrashed to death by a long line of bluesmen before him ('Stop!', also on the 'The Ballad of John Henry' album) or finger-picks an acoustic as if he were Paco de Lucia’s pet student ('Faux Martini' on 'Had to Cry Today', 2004).
Hidden (or not) in his tracks, we can find guitar works that remind us of Brian May, Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughan and even Chuck Berry ('Sweet Rowena' on 'Dust Bowl', 2011). Knopfler started off the research into music's Celtic roots and that of the music of cowboys and spurs, but it was Bonamassa that mixed it all together and toughened it up ('Black Lung Heartache', also on 'Dust Bowl'). This isn't so much about paying tribute, but more just about the man having a good time, showing himself and the world that, be it nylon, catgut or steel, there is no string that can deny him what he is after, no secret scale that he cannot decipher.
As of late, he has released quadruple live albums, gone back to playing in a band with Rock Candy Funk Party (three albums in three years) and has sought out heavenly voices with which to accompany his abilities, finding Berth Hart ('Seesaw', 2013).
The critics sometimes avow that such a polished technique has sucked all the emotion out of his performances. The more envious reckon that, although he nails each style, they all sound the same. By which they mean perfect. Meanwhile, he snaps up any guitar that takes his fancy, fuelled by an unhealthy obsession to master each one of them, play every sound and command every nuance. Meanwhile, he notches up another hit in every new album which he then sells or, as of late, gives free on the Internet. He never gets off his touring horse and burns down the house of any stranger who dares to challenge him - by overwhelming him, outplaying him, showing him that there is no trick he is not capable of, no style or technique he cannot take to the highest level. Never-ending until, his fingers bleeding under the pouring rain, he comes out the victor and decides that now is the time to ride off to discover yet another uncharted territory.
It's difficult to give a label to Joe Bonamassa. His brutal productivity, his infinite versatility, his perfect technique and untiring ambition make the task of identifying his best songs or preferred styles nigh on impossible. Similarly, his compulsion to experiment with all manner of material and his insatiable appetite for new sounds to master make it impossible to pigeon-hole him. That may be why he comes in for so much stick. We always want to put a neat label on our heroes and villains. To rank them one above the other, make a list of favourites, box them up. But he decided to go for the lot, take up the entire hit parade and keep it for himself, use every millimetre of his fret board in every way possible, sending an eclectic and endless mix of signals down the copper wires to the amp for us to hear what's going on in his head. He set out to be the definitive music machine. And he achieved it.
He is, in truth, simply beyond criticism, except, perhaps, for one thing, and that is; it's impossible for people to identify with someone, to make them their favourite above all others, if that someone happens to be them all.
So let's leave it there. We'll talk about his lyrics and compositions some other day. But it would be a lost battle. He would only read it and decide that if anyone was going to write about his work, it should be him. Because he could do it so much better…