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Interview: Joe Bonamassa, Part II – Hidden Talents and The Meaning of Success

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Blogcritics music editor Connie Phillips and I recently had the opportunity to sit down with blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. In Vegas for two shows, we caught up with Bonamassa just hours prior to his second gig.

One of the goals of my portion of the interview was to obtain answers to some of Joe's fans' questions, as well as some of my own. While a large number of questions were submitted, time did not allow for all to be asked or answered. Many thanks go out to the fans who submitted their questions and I hope they enjoy Joe's responses.

Joan Hunt for Blogcritics: Joe, thank you for making time in your busy schedule for this interview.

Joe Bonamassa: Hi, Joanie. Not a problem.

I hope you don't mind me starting off with a few questions from some of your fans.

That's cool.

Stephanie wanted to know which song is your favorite to perform and why.

It varies. "Mountain Time" is my favorite song right now.

I'm surprised. I recall you saying in Reno that you were a bit weary of the song. Of course, that was two years ago and the song usually ran longer back then. In fact, I think our exchange at the time went a little something like "…well, I know many fans wouldn't mind a 45-minute version of 'Mountain Time'", to which you replied, "Isn't it already that long?" I have to admit, I was one of those fans who never wanted to the song to end.

Yeah, the song did go on for a while then, didn't it? Even though I used to play a longer version, it was hard to keep the feeling fresh night after night. Songs rotate in and out of preference because there are a lot of factors that go into each performance. Times change.

The new version of "Mountain Time" is probably my favorite version yet. I've had a chance to play around with it and bring it to where it feels right. Plus, the way the band is now, there's a little more freedom in my approach.

Personally, I like the new version and I love the fact you added what I call the "layered" sound back in.

Again, it's part of having the freedom to play the music the way I feel it.

I guess this answers another one of Stephanie's questions about which part of performing you most enjoy.

Yeah, it's about the opportunity to express myself musically, the way I want to. And another part of it is the chance to interact with the fans. It's also just a privilege to be doing what I do for a living.

Now, about your guitars. You have an impressive collection. How many do you have these days? Do they have names? And, are they all originals?

I have 181 guitars at this point, but they don't have names. They're numbered, but not named. Of my collection, 100 are original vintage guitars and some of the rest are customed made.

DH likes the new interactive Joe, the one who calls for audience participation. When did this trend start?

Oh, that started in Europe the last time I was there. I was surprised to hear the crowds singing along with my songs so loudly and clearly. It was really great! Now I like to encourage audiences [in the States] to do the same. For some reason, though, audiences here are a little more reserved when it comes to joining in. I'm not sure why.

[Laughing] I do my part! Especially on "Spoonful." My only guess as to why people don't join in on other songs is because they know you change some of the lyrics to your song. (Author's note: See Connie's interview for Joe's comments on lyrics.)

"Spoonful" usually gets people going. The lyrics to other songs change a little, but not so much that people can't sing along with the chorus. (Author's note: Very true!)

About those European audiences… Brian, from England, wanted to know what you thought of the "reserved" English crowds.

They're not reserved at all! Actually, it's the Eastern European fans who seem more polite, quiet. But I think maybe it's the language barrier more than anything else. Anyway, the crowds in Europe have all been great. Fans are fans and it's always good when they respond to what I'm doing on stage.

Do you find the age of the typical crowd more mature than you'd like?

When you play clubs, the age limit is generally 21+. It's a shame to limit the music to only people over a certain age, but those are the rules when you play clubs. I do get to spend time with younger fans through BITS (Blues in the Schools), though. Festivals, too.

One of the my favorite examples of this, aside from the photo of you with my son, is an image I saw in Garth Close's gallery of this one little kid at Omaha's Playing With Fire Blues Festival. He's sitting on a stack of speakers, enchanted by the performance. My guess is he's only about three or four.

At festivals, we get all ages and varying levels of interest. When you see the kids out there having as much fun as the adults, it's a good day. It's a good sign the blues won't die out. You have to take chances to reach a new audience and kids are that audience. I love watching kids get into music.

Exactly! Speaking of which…kids, as well as adults, tend to idolize you. How do you keep your feet firmly on the ground in the face of such adoration?

As a musician, you have to always know there's somebody better out there. We're… I'm lucky to do this for a living. You have to be willing to work hard and pay your dues. It's not a given that you'll be able to make a living as a musician.

B.B. King set the high water mark in this regard. He taught me there will always be someone better out there, or someone chasing behind who's better. You can't sit around and not try. You have to be willing to take chances and work harder than maybe you feel like working sometimes. It's not easy and it if was, everybody'd be doing it. And you better be humble about what you do, too. There's no room for ego because it's the first thing people call you on. You also have to recognize that fans are part of whatever success you find along the way.

You regularly do acknowledge your fans and share your gratitude with them. You're also one of the most accessible artists around, staying after shows to meet fans and sign autographs. One fan, Bill S., wanted to know if you've ever estimated how many times you've signed your name and what was the most unique item you've ever signed.

Let's see… I can sign my name anywhere from 100 to 200 times a night. I play how many shows a year… [thinking and mumbling]… I think I've signed my name at least 40,000 times. 40,000!

The most unique thing I ever signed was a prosthetic leg. [Laughing] When someone offers you their leg, you really can't refuse.

Sorry, I can't think of a single graceful way to follow a prosthetic leg. [All laughing]
Why don't we find out a bit more about a special song off your latest album, You & Me. Like "Mountain Time," "Asking Around For You" is one of those tunes that seems to get to everyone in the crowd. It's a beautiful, heartfelt song, seemingly written with someone particular in mind.

The song was originally written for my writing partner Mike Himelstein's mom. It's one of those songs that's easy to find the emotion in it and bring it to the crowd.

Ah, see, you went and opened the door for Martica's question. Is singing about pain or breakups therapeutic?

Not really. Um, in the beginning, maybe. But after you've been performing a while, after you get to know the songs, it's all in the delivery. You just tap into something inside you, inside the song, and you connect. What the song means to the listener, what they make of it, it's all up to them.

I would imagine your life on the road is rather exhausting. What do you like to do in your free time to get away from the rigors of touring?

In Europe, it's great. We get to do some sightseeing. We're surrounded by history. I like to check out all the historic sights I can. Cathedrals, castles, ancient towns. It's amazing to think there are some roads we travel across that have been there for hundreds of years. Some of the places we've played are hundreds of years old, too.

What about when you're at home and not gigging?

At home? Home improvements. I love Home Depot! I'm good at walking in and picking things out, buying the supplies for the deck or whatever other project is on the list.

Do you do the work yourself?

Oh, no. [Laughing} No. We hire contractors for the work. I'm just good at the buying part. I leave the work to the pros.

As unlikely as this is, if you had the chance to stick around L.A. a bit more often, would you ever consider making a guest appearance on a TV show? American Idol (like Kenny Wayne Shepherd) or, one of my son's favorites – Drake and Josh? On D&J, Drake plays guitar, sings, and there are references to the Blues Brothers and R.L. Burnside scattered throughout the show. My son is convinced you should show up and teach Drake a thing or two about the blues.

I wouldn't have a problem with appearing on American Idol. But, I wouldn't sing someone else's song. I'm not sure what the value of that would be. What did Kenny Wayne Shepherd sing? Something by Aerosmith, was it? I can't see how this would benefit me or the show. If I could go on and be myself, sing one of my own songs, yeah, I'd do it.

I could also see doing a show on Nickelodeon. Sounds like Drake and Josh is a cool show, the kid's got good taste in music.

You know, having time to do a guest appearance would be great, as long as I wouldn't have to get up too early to do it. [Laughing] The thing is…it would have to be something where I could have some fun.

So movies aren't out of the question either, right? Jeff Healey was in Roadhouse, Steve Vai was in Crossroads

Movies would be fun. In fact, I'll be working on an indie film in Houston in January.

Whoa! Amazingly, I didn't see that info on the fan forum.

You heard it here, right from the source.

Thanks! Okay, we'll pretend I'm not super-surprised by the news and go back to the "Joe at home" theme. What's your favorite meal at home?

I make a mean Cobb Salad. [Glances down at a cannoli he's eating] I tend to eat better, healthier, at home than I do on the road. There's always great food everywhere I go, but when I'm home, I have things I like to eat that I don't have the luxury to make while traveling. Like the Cobb Salad. My taste in food is somewhat eclectic beyond that, though.

Road travel takes its toll, obviously. Let's say a big Vegas casino offered to build a show around you, letting you play 200-265 days a year, big money, choice of musicians, and giving you control of the sound and production quality, would you do it?

Yes! Who wouldn't?

I'd have Mark and Bogie up there on stage, my new crew working with us, and Go-Go dancers…

Go-Go dancers? A la the ANDY (A New Day Yesterday) Live DVD?

Not really. Although it's Vegas, right? [Laughs]

True enough. By the way, what's your overall opinion of Vegas?

It's a place of false reality, like Disneyland. Even at night, it feels like day when you're in the casinos. They've thought out all the details and they know what they're doing here. But it's not real.

On the subject of real, let's talk a bit about the changes you've experienced over the last year. You started playing with a new band in November of 2005. More recently, you changed your entire road crew. Suddenly, you seem happier and you appear to have more energy. Do these changes have anything to do with this?

Absolutely, yes! I've been in this business for 18 years and sometimes shaking things up is the best way to keep from stagnating. I have talented new band members who bring nothing but the best to the stage every night, I have a crew of truly experienced and professional guys working their butts off to make everything happen the way it should.

I've reached the point in my career where I have to be with people who understand what it takes to make it to the next level of performing. If I work with people who approach each day like it's their first day on the job, I'll never go anywhere. I don't have to worry about that with this crew. They're all so good and… [as if on cue, Joe's guitar tech/roadie comes in to discuss a problem with an amp. Instead of handing the problem to Joe, he's simply updating him on their options.]

This is what I'm talking about. In the past, I might have handled the amp situation myself, taking time away from other things I need to do. Things like practicing and warming up my voice. Now, it's all under control. All the right people are in place, doing what they've been hired to do.

You just mentioned practicing. I've heard you say you practice every day, three hours a day. And, I know you warm up before a show, and do vocal exercises after. Is this part of trying to stay a step ahead of the pack?

Partly. Look, you have to practice to improve and you have to take care of your voice if you sing. You can't go anywhere if you're working with broken gear, right? You have to be prepared to go on stage. You have to perform well to keep the crowd interested. I give my best on stage, and afterwards, I come back to the bus or go backstage to cool off, vocally and literally. I change clothes, grab something to drink, and then head out to see the fans.

It's the only way to stay on top of my game. What other people are doing is something completely different.

My career, my chosen profession is what matters. Comparing what I do to other singers or guitarists doesn't get us anywhere. I have to think about what works for me and for the people I work with.

It's like booking certain venues. I've bided my time and waited until I was sure I could pack a place before committing to a concert somewhere. I've seen what happens [to other bands] who jump the gun or dream too big without having all the key elements in place. Still, it's a measured path that works for me and it's my road to travel.

Sounds familiar. You've taken a similar stance when it comes to critics who claim you're not bluesy enough to call your work blues.

The blues isn't something that fits into some little box. The blues is many different styles.

This is one of the reasons I like You & Me so much. You combined many types of blues on the album. Was this intentional?

Yes, I wanted to show how far-ranging the blues can be. You're not just limited to Delta, Texas, or British blues – you have an endless means of expressing the music and you have to be willing to explore and push the boundaries of what the blues can be. That's the only way to keep the music alive and get to a new generation of fans.

You've worked with a lot of talented people in your career. I was really surprised to see the Steve Tyrell listed as a co-writer for "Trouble Waiting" (from the 20 Dates soundtrack and ANDY). He's one of my favorites.

Steve's a great guy. He and his late wife, Stephanie, were wonderful to work with as well as just wonderful people. Working with them on "Trouble Waiting" and "Love Conquers All" was a great experience snd helped me develop my songwriting skills.

Would you ever consider performing with him?

That would be fun. I'm not sure what we would do, but it would be fun.

I recently had to endure endless hours of "relaxation" tapes, which I found largely annoying. I ended up putting together a mix of some of your mellower offerings. What do you think about making an album of instrumentals or acoustic music?

You did that? Really? [Laughing]

An acoustic album will happen. Not in the near future, but it'll happen. That's always been something I wanted to do.

Joe, just a few more questions here…

Hey, no problem. Sorry it's been a little hectic around here. There's always something going on.

Let's go with a few quick answers on a few things.

Tell me about your manager, Roy Weisman.

He's like the brother I never had. He's great! I can't imagine working with anyone else.

Mark Epstein

Best bass player you've never heard. Absolutely first class, professional, and totally present in all he does.

Bogie Bowles

I don't mean to sound repetitive, but he's the best drummer you've never heard. I'm lucky to have him on board. He has talent and energy like I've never seen.

What's your definition of success?

Doing what you love to do for a living, providing for your family in the process, knowing the people who count on you have absolute faith in your vision. By surrounding myself with all the right people, I can do this now.

This leg of the tour is pretty tight. We just had to take on a second [bus] driver because the way the schedule falls. I couldn't do this without having achieved a little success and without people who have continued to believe in me all these years. I'm a lucky man.

Joe Bonamassa isn't just a lucky man, he's also quite astute. Through careful planning, he's built a strong base of fans, achieved critical acclaim, landed himself a choice seat on the Blues Foundation's board of directors, and managed to reach out to young musicians as a mentor and hero.

I hope you have enjoyed part two of the Blogcritics interview with Joe Bonamassa. If you haven't already read part one, please stop by and check out what Connie Phillips uncovered.

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