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JOE BONAMASSA: 2019 AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW


American guitar Great Joe Bonamassa was in Nashville, Tennessee, preparing for the start of his American summer tour when he phoned up Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips for a chat about his upcoming Australian tour in September.

Two-time Grammy-nominated artist Joe Bonamassa is your archetypal modern day bluesman. While he’s a keeper of the blues flame in so many ways, he’s also one of the most digital age, social media savvy musicians going around. Joe works hard at it too, constantly either on the road, in the studio or broadening his palette in any number of side projects, such as Black Country Communion or Rock Candy Funk Party. Bonamassa is no stranger to Australia, having toured here successfully on many occasions and he is returning to our shores again in September. Backed by a stellar band of legendary musicians including Late Night with David Letterman‘s Anton Fig (drums), Nashville recording legend Michael Rhodes (bass), Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble member, Reese Wynans (piano/organ), Paulie Cerra (sax) and Lee Thornburg (trumpet). The band also features our very own Mahalia Barnes, Jade MacRae and Juanita Tippins on backing vocals bringing a whole new life to the show which will feature brand new songs alongside career-spanning favourites. Ahead of his American summer tour and then dates in Australia, Joe’s pre-tour state of mind seems to be one of comfort and control.
“Well, we have a great band and fortunately we’ve been together so long,” he tells me. “Rehearsals are going to be about getting the muscle memory back and we’ll work on new stuff and see how it slots into the show. Basically we have three shows that we do on a weekly basis, show A, B and C. It’s one of those things where you just try to tick all of the boxes. I am in between albums so I’m bringing back songs from ten years ago that kind of went into making my reputation, as well as songs we have rested for a while but now it feels right to bring those songs back. It’s a bit of a nostalgia show and it is fun because you come to it with a different headspace, a different mindset, so it’s really good.”

Bonamassa has performed and recorded in Australia on many occasions and with two Australian backing singers in the band, it’s a place he finds both familiar and welcoming. He’s also a major fan of the local music scene here.
“The first time we came there, I think we played for Peter Noble, we were involved with the Byron Bay Bluesfest and then we jumped over to our own gigs. I always find a welcoming, kind audience and our records have always done really good there. It’s been a blast, a real joy to go there for the last ten years and have a presence in Australia, it’s been nice. A long time ago I worked with a guy named Mark Lizotte on a couple of songs which ended up on some of his solo records … he goes by the name of Diesel. Mark is one of the most talented musicians I have ever been around. Over the years I have gotten to be friends with Jimmy Barnes and his family and Mahalia, his daughter sings with our band … part time, as she is a mum and splits it with her solo career. What I find with Australian music is that there is such a depth of talent that is in my opinion criminally underappreciated, especially outside of Australia. It’s one of those things where everybody can rip and play, sing in tune and it’s like wow. It is very impressive. For your country population wise, compared to the rest of the world … what is there 30 million people in Australia? By comparison there is that many people in Los Angeles. The amount of talent there is astonishing.”

When playing with guys of the calibre of Anton Fig, Michael Rhodes and Reece Wynans, Joe can be assured that he’s not only going to get a tight performance from his band but they’ll also display their own unique flourishes, adding to the magic of the show. After all these years, I asked Joe if they still manage to surprise each other on stage?
“Yeah, I mean we are our biggest critics,” he says without hesitation. “We’ll get off the stage and sometimes say we sucked tonight but people who have seen us all the time will say you guys were great! We are very hyper-critical. Having that sense of never being satisfied with the performance and believing it can always be better makes us a better band by far. The depth of knowledge and experience that is on that deck is incredible. Reece has played with everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Delbert McClinton, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He just got inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame here in Nashville. I know this ‘cos I just read his name in the induction ceremony.These guys have played everything with everyone and they call upon those references in a very cool way. They don’t wear their reputations on their sleeve but they sneak in these little reference points and it’s great how they do that.”

Joe Bonamassa and band are known for their consistently electrifying sets but I wondered what the elements are that elevate a show from very good to greatness?
“I think at the end of the day one of the factors is taking chances within the parameters,” he says. “We gotta get to the songs, we gotta get the band tight but you want to leave it loose enough where there’s some spontaneity and improvisation going on. If you micro-manage the music, it becomes very monotonic and stale, at least in my opinion and experience. If you leave some wriggle room and leave it loose in some places, it’s great.”

Bonamassa has been involved in over 30 albums to date including studio and live recordings, collaborative albums and side projects. His last release under his own name was 2018’s Redemption with his most current recorded output being his guitar parts on Reese Wynans & Friends’ “Sweet Release”, the debut solo album for his legendary keyboard player. Joe heads to Abbey Road studios in London in January to commence work on a new British blues album. With each new album release, I asked Joe if it makes framing a set list easier or harder?
“It really shines upon the songs that can be rested for a while because you have new ones you want to play,” he says. “To me a show is like a play, you’ve got act 1 act 2, act 3 and a finale. You sit down and put a bunch of songs together that makes sense and takes an audience on a journey. We play a two hour and 15 minute show. My goal as a set list writer is to make sure that the show is concise and entertaining as possible, so when you look down at your watch at the end it feels like the show just started… you know … two hours and fifteen minutes just went by. I can make a set list that makes 40 minutes feel like forever or I can write a two hour show that it feels like it’s gone by in 40 minutes. You gotta keep the audience interested. You have to keep the tempos there and even the way you play … you don’t want to play all the notes in the first three songs but you also have to give them some fire, you know, what they paid for… it’s a guitar show.”

It’s a guitar show indeed and Joe is currently sorting out which guitars he’ll be bringing down to Australia. Rest assured they’ll be rare and beautiful. In Joe’s touring rack last year he featured: a ’52 Tele owned by British guitar stalwart Terry Reid, a ’51 Nocaster, ’56 Strat, ’55 Hardtail Strat with ash body, ’67 Sparkling Burgundy Gibson 355, ’62 ES335 Albert Hall spec, ’56 Les Paul and his ’60 Ragin’ Cajun’ Les Paul. Joe possesses one of the world’s finest guitar collections and has no trouble breaking most of them out on stage for a play.
“I can’t justify owning them if I’m not going to use them,” he tells me. “I mean it’s within reason. I don’t take one of a kind stuff out or stuff I don’t have duplicates of. It’s only mint once. At the end of the day it’s been preserved for 60, 70 years, you don’t want to start beating on stuff. I am a custodian of history in a lot of ways, so I serve both masters. The stuff I play is in good shape, it’s very well preserved but not perfect. The ones I play are the workhorses but they are old. Every guitar that I play is old.”

But what’s his couch guitar? What’s the guitar within reach at home when he comes up with an idea of just wants a strum? Well it turns out that Joe’s go-to home guitars read like a guitar collector’s dream too.
“I usually have a ‘Whitman’s Sampler’ on display, so I have a Les Paul or Esquire or Telecaster, Strat and some sort of Gibson with F holes. I rarely play acoustic guitar. I am not an acoustic guitar player, I don’t play dobro, I only collect what I like. I like solid body Fenders, Gibsons … 335s, 345s, that sort of stuff.” (Photo of his ‘Whitman’s Sampler’ from his Facebook page)

Amp-wise, on stage Joe has a selection too, including two Joe Bonamassa Fender Twin reissues that were developed in conjunction with Fender’s Stan Cotey. I asked Joe about the elements and personal touches of that amp that make it a Joe Bonamassa model?
“Other than the fact that I spearheaded the initiatives of recreated a great sounding, ’58, ’59, high powered Twin, really nothing. We started with an amp that I loved, which I bought from Steven Seagal the actor. It’s a fantastic Twin and Stan Cotey did a great job of recreating that amplifier. We used Celestion speakers because I like the way that twins sound with Celestions but they also sound great with the Alnico speakers as well but I like the tightness of the Celestion speakers with the Fender amps in the mid range especially. At the end of the day Stan did a wonderful job of recreating in 2017 the 58 twin, so instead of $20,000 for a vintage one, for three and a half grand you can buy an amp that blindfolded … to me and I am not just saying it because my name is on it … to me it doesn’t sound any different to an old one. That’s a testament to Stan’s ingenuity. I mean I really had nothing to do with it. He was just like, let’s keep tweaking stuff, tweaking stuff because the new parts are different to the old parts. And when you are working with a company like Fender, there are safety laws now that didn’t exist in the 50s, so we kind of circumvented all of that and came up with an amp to my ears sounds exactly the same. The ones I use on stage are new, brand new.”

Joe’s father owned a music store, so the young Bonamassa always had a good grounding for musical knowledge and gear. Things are different these days and a lot of people buy their gear online but what are Joe’s thoughts on the importance of bricks and mortar music stores?
“I think they are incredibly important,” he says emphatically. “You give any collector or guitarist or musician the initial love. How many times do you walk past a store window and go, fuck I just want that, if only I could get that. Shopping online takes the soul out of it. Being able to have a tangible item in your hands and the tactility of it is to me the magic. If you just point and click, it shows it in a box and it’s like yeah, it’s ok but not for me. My entire collection and I have over 800 guitars, not a single one was from ebay.”

Joe Bonamassa’s Australian tour kicks off on September 18 in Brisbane before heading to Sydney and Melbourne. After that it’s back to the states for a Fall tour and then the UK to record.
“We are going to Abbey Road in January and we are going to make a record and it is going to be British blues all the way,” he says enthusiastically. “We have shows booked all the way through 2020, so 2020 will be promoting the new album and it’s going to be good. I am very much excited about working at Abbey Road, doing an old fashioned field trip record. It’s one thing living in Nashville and LA, you know there are great studios here but at the end of the day you are sleeping in your own bed. There’s a dynamic shift going to a different studio or country and you have a mission statement that all you have to do is write and record. That gives the album a bit more of an edge.”

Wednesday, 18 September 2019
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane Qld
Tickets available from 10.00am on Monday, 6 May from jbonamassa.com

Friday, 20 September 2019
State Theatre, Sydney NSW
Tickets available from 10.00am on Monday, 6 May from jbonamassa.com

Saturday, 21 September 2019
State Theatre, Sydney NSW
Tickets available from 10.00am on Monday, 6 May from jbonamassa.com

Monday, 23 September 2019
Palais Theatre, St Kilda Vic
Tickets available from 10.00am on Monday, 6 May from jbonamassa.com

MEET AND GREET OPPORTUNITY: Don’t forget if you book your Melbourne Guitar Show tickets online before August 3, you will go into the draw to win a meet and greet with Joe at his Melbourne Palais concert. More details HERE

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