By John Johnson ( photo www.jbonamassa.com/)
To say that I was a little nervous for my Tampa Bay Music News interview with a living guitar legend, would be an understatement. Now, throw in the fact that I was about to do a phone interview with arguably the best guitarist of the 2000’s, and my anxiety was turned up to eleven (This is Spinal Tap reference). My recent video interviews at a holiday charity event notwithstanding, I was preparing to talk with a personal guitar hero of mine, the incomparable blues guitar wizard, Joe Bonamassa. His PR firm set the time for 2:20pm on Friday, February 2nd, and allowed for a 20-minute allotment to question Mr. Bonamassa.
Groundhog Day 2024 would ironically be like no other Groundhog Day (Bill Murray movie reference) as I set up shop in an empty boardroom of my office building, at 1pm. Hey, I wanted to be prepared. And I was, I had my list of questions, several tabs open to web sites for reference, pad and pencil (yes, a pencil) and I had been listening to his extensive catalog for days leading up to February 2nd, 2:20pm. As prepared as I thought I was, I had no idea how laid back, funny and personable this blues titan was going to be during our call.
2:29pm. My phone rings and identifies the caller as J. Bonamassa.
Me – Hello
Joe – John?
Me – Yeah.
Joe – Joe Bonamassa. I’m running so fucking late today, nobody sticks to the time.
(He dropped the F bomb in his very first sentence. We’re going to be the best of friends.)
Joe – I’m five minutes over on everybody, so I’m sorry…
Me – No apology necessary. I appreciate you giving me your time. So were ya at?
Joe – I’m in Los Angeles.
Me – Nice. Well, happy Groundhog Day. I hope it doesn’t end up feeling like that and my questions aren’t too repetitive.
Joe – Well, thanks.
Me – I’m reporting for the Tampa Bay Area and just want to further educate people on your badassery.
Joe – (laughs) I appreciate that.
Me – So last August you celebrated the 20th Anniversary of your groundbreaking album Blues Deluxe, and you released Blues Deluxe Volume 2.
Joe – Thanks, yeh, it was my first release that I had where people started to take notice.
Me – Yeh, 20 years for a follow up. Was that just because the timing felt right?
Joe – Well, I did do 40 other albums…
(We both chuckle and I find relief in realizing he knows that I KNOW he doesn’t just have 2 albums.)
Joe – …between DVD’s and side projects. But I definitely wanted to do something for the 20th anniversary. And there were no extra tracks from 2003, so ya know I was like fuck it I’ll just record another volume of songs and see if I was better or worse than I was 20 years ago.
Me – Ha, I read somewhere you said that you were a cocky 26-year-old then and now you’re an experienced 46-year-old. It’s nice that age and life experiences allow us to turn cocky into confidence.
Joe – Yeh. Right.
Me – Full disclosure, I’m Creative Director for a PDQ, a chicken joint over here in the southeast and do this Tampa Bay Music News stuff on the side, and I jumped at the chance to interview you.
Joe – Oh. Nice.
Me – I’ve actually done some work with Cheap Trick and designed a couple of their album covers.
Joe – Cool. Which ones?
Me – Rockford.
Joe – Nice.
Me – Rick Neilsen plays a guitar with that artwork on it…
Joe – Oh great. I love Rick.
Me – Well, I mention that because he has a HUGE guitar collection, but I recently discovered that your collection gives him a run for his money.
Joe – Rick was the OG man, I caught the bug by reading his book. Ya know? I was like…I want in. He was 25 years ahead of me. Yeh, I got one of the biggest guitar collections in the world…
Me – I’m sure it’s hard to have a favorite, but I hear it’s a ’51 Nocaster?
Joe – That’s one of my best guitars, ya know what I mean? I could spend 8 hours just talking about the Fenders.
Me – If only I had that kind of time. You should start a Podcast.
Joe – I have one…
(Damn. It seems my due diligence wasn’t quite diligent enough. How did I not know this? Joe kindly continues, and doesn’t make me feel like a dolt)
Joe – …it’s called Live From Nerdville. Yeh, about 75 episodes, Rick was on one of them. We did about 75 or 80 and then I went back to work ya know? I’m a decent broadcaster, but broadcasting is not my career. And to do a podcast every week, just requires a lot of…it’s very labor intensive. And it’s also EXTREMELY crowded.
Me – Yeh, I’m sure it’s a pretty saturated market. I’m definitely gonna dive in to it though.
Joe – Yeh, cool…
Me – Ok, well, a Groundhog Day question you’ve heard plenty, I’m sure. Gibson or Fender? Is it the right tool for the right job kind of thing?
Joe – Exactly. You need a hammer; you need a screwdriver…a saw. Ya know, it’s so song dependent.
Me – I assume a hammer for your Black Country Communion stuff. I hear there’s a new album coming out.
Joe Yeh, that’s in June. June 14th.
Me – Nice. Still the same lineup I assume.
Joe – We can’t do it without the same lineup. Literally. It’s the four of us plus Kevin Shirley. I wouldn’t do it any other way. Yeh, it wouldn’t make any sense to change the lineup. If Jason (Bonham), Glenn (Hughes) and Derek (Sherinian) and Kevin (Shirley) are in, then I’m in.
Me – I love that stuff…
Joe – Thanks, I’m actually going to see Glenn tonight. I’m gonna sit in with him at The Whisky.
(That of course is bassist and vocalist Glenn Hughes he’s referring to, and Joe will be jumping on stage with him at the historic Whisky-A-GoGo in West Hollywood, which surprisingly Joe has never performed at until Friday night)
Me – So, in that Super Group is it nice not to have to song ALL the songs.
Joe – Yeh…I mean, I sing a fair amount in Black Country Communion, but I’m definitely not the lead singer. I’ll sing some harmonies, or I’ll sing a few songs, that’s totally fine. But Glenn is a fucking force of nature so what am I going to do?
(A third F bomb and we both chuckle once again. If I wasn’t two time zones away, I would definitely be attending that rock show at The Whisky for sure)
Me – ‘Course it doesn’t hurt to have a guy with the last name Bonham behind ya either.
Joe – Ha. IT DOES NOT.
Me – I’m sure the stories from the road would easily take up another 8 hours. But, I want to give some time to your charitable nature. You have your Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which is awesome for supplying resources for educators …
Joe – Oh, thanks…
(Joe’s Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation’s mission is conserve the art of music in schools by funding projects, scholarships, and grants that preserve music education for the next generation. Check them out here www. keepingthebluesalive.org)
Me – But, I have a lot of friends who are local musicians and they make their living by playing in small venues and clubs, and Covid took a lot of their income away…
Joe – All of their income. Ya know, unless they were on Instagram dancing for nickels or Patreon or whatever that shit was, but it’s like I felt that a lot of that stuff was beneath these guys, but they had to do what they had to do to survive and keep the lights on…
Me – So you created the Fueling Musicians program for that reason. That’s awesome…
Joe – Thanks, yeh, we’ve given away over a million dollars.
(Joe Bonamassa’s Fueling Musicians Program is a relief plan for helping touring musicians get back on the road. This initiative is designed to support musicians by providing financial assistance for essential living expenses such as food, shelter, and more. Learn more www.keepingthebluesalive.org/fueling-musicians)
Me – That’s really incredible. So, with Blues Deluxe Volume 2 in your rearview, when’s the next Bonamassa album coming.
Joe – Yeh, we just finished the record and that’ll be out this year, but we have Live at The Hollywood Bowl…
Me – With a full orchestra, right?
Joe – Yeh, with the orchestra, so I’m not sure when the solo album is gonna come out. It’s been a little bit of a log jam of late, the worlds not clamoring for yet another Joe Bonamassa release, ya know.
Me – Ah speak for yourself.
(More laughter. I may have made him forget that about my podcast faux pas)
Me – First time with an orchestra, right?
Joe – Yeh, first go ‘round with an orchestra. It was…was quite exacting…It required a lot, a lot of detail work. VERY exacting.
Me – So many moving parts, I’m sure. But what an iconic place to do it, the fucking Hollywood Bowl. That’s a long way from Utica!
(I finally felt comfortable enough to drop my first F bomb and mention his hometown in upstate New York in one fell swoop)
Joe – Yeh…very
Me – So, you’re coming to town soon.
Joe – I am.
Me – You’re playing our newest outdoor venue on March 16th.
Joe – We’ve played some gigs at the Ruth Eckerd Hall and it’s their sister venue…I like big gigs outside.
Me – Yeh, I was going to ask you which you prefer. Small theaters or big gigs.
Joe – Ruth Eckerd is not that small, I’ve played smaller.
Me – Well, The Sound is a beautiful place. By the water, you’ll get a nice breeze. You’re gonna tear that place up.
Joe – It’ll be good. It’s our last show on land for us, so if we’re not good by then…then we all suck.
(Laughter abounds. He of course is referencing the cruise ship event, Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea IX)
Me – Well, I won’t keep ya. Maybe you can get back on schedule. I really appreciate your time. And I’m looking forward to seeing you in March.
Joe – Alright John, I appreciate it man, thanks. Talk to ya soon.
Me – Safe travels.
It was an honor to share this brief moment with Mr. Bonamassa, the guitar maestro made for one very unforgettable Groundhog Day, and I look forward to reviewing his show on March 16th (if you don’t have a ticket, get one, you will be blown away). With his 20th anniversary of 2003’s Blues Deluxe complete, his Live at the Hollywood Bowl soon to be released and currently in the studio for what’s sure to be another astounding solo studio recording in 2024, the self-proclaimed Nerd has no intention of resting on his laurels.
A child prodigy, who at seven was playing Stevie Ray Vaughn licks and opening for B.B. King when he was just 12 years old, has continued to expand his virtuosity year after year. From his collaborations with Black Country Communion, Rock Candy Funky Party and Beth Hart (to name just a few) to his intense charitable work, spreading his love of music, Joe is seemingly tireless. With his extensive collection of guitars and amps, musical prowess, and knowledge of the blues, even at 46, B.B’s words of Joe when he was 10 still ring true, “he hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface.”