BluesWax Sittin’ In with
By Bob Gersztyn
Joe Bonamassa is one of the hottest blues-rock guitarists and singer-songwriters on the scene today. Since his debut in 2000 Bonamassa has come a long way, through relentless touring and by releasing 17 albums. As a child prodigy he was opening shows for B.B. King at the age of 12 and has recently graced the covers of Guitar Player and Blues Revue as the leading Generation X blues axe man of the 21st century. Billboard magazine called him the #1 Blues Artist of 2010 and in 2011 he released Dust Bowl, which was recorded in Santorini, Greece. BluesWax Contributing Editor Bob Gersztyn caught up with Joe between gigs during his final U.S. appearances, prior to the holidays and a tour of Europe during the first half of 2012. They talked about the new album and some of the influences that have impacted Joe thus far.
Bob Gersztyn for BluesWax: How did you decide on the mix of songs that you used for Dust Bowl?
Joe Bonamassa: On a lot of these things you start out with a concept, and then sometimes you kind of bail on them as the record kind of shapes up and the thing is more so than anything we had a chance to record with Vince Gill and John Hiatt and I think some of the songs took shape because of that opportunity. There is no master plan with a chalkboard room where you decide these concepts. It’s a weird thing when all of a sudden in the context of a “blues album,” and it’s a pretty liberal use of the term “blues,” it’s not a straight-ahead blues record by any means. There’s Beth Hart, John Hiatt, Vince Gill, and Glen Hughes on the same record, but it all seems to kind of work, as we kept going, finding songs, or I would write something, and it just kind of went from there.
BW: “Tennessee Plates” is a John Hiatt [Dave Porter] composition and it’s not the first time you’ve covered John Hiatt [“I Know A Place” on Black Rock]), what is it that you like about his songs?
JB: There’s something about the lyrics that he writes that are really deep. He’s like the ultimate “I wish I thought of that,” and then you are saying “Wow! What a great song, what a great concept, what a great lyric, man I wish that I had thought of that.”John’s a super nice guy and he just came to the Beacon Theater. We did two nights at the Beacon Theater, and we recorded it, in New York. We invited three guests to come and one was John, and the other was Beth Hart and then the great Paul Rogers. So at the end John came out and we did “I Know A Place” from Black Rock, and then he did one of his new songs, from his new record with the four of us. It’s called “Down And Around My Place.” If you listen to the lyrics of it, it’s like poetry, it’s on the level of like Leonard Cohen, because it’s just poetry set to music, and it’s wonderful. I have an affinity for John Hiatt songs, and I’m not the only one, his stuff has been by everybody, and rightfully so, because it’s just a wonderful wealth of American music. John is great, he’s a total legend and a total star, and I was really honored to work with him on the album and DVD.
BW: Yeah, John really is a poet. I’ve seen him perform a couple of times. He was at the Waterfront Blues Festival a few years ago with the North Mississippi All Stars backing him up.
JB: John is like a troubadour. He could be with the North Mississippi All Stars or have his own killer band, or does acoustic shows with Lyle Lovett. It’s just like himself and Lyle Lovett, and everything works. It just all works.
BW: Another question I had was about train imagery in songs. The first song on Dust Bowl is one. Why are trains in the imagery of so many songs? From “500 Miles” and “Casey Jones” to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and a plethora of other blues and folk songs?
JB: To put it in the context of our world, Kevin [Shirley] came in one day, when we were in the studio and he said, “You know, Joe, you need a song about a train, all blues artists have songs about trains. So pick a key and let’s just start a song, a vamp, but we’ll start it like a freight train would start, so slow, and then slowly get going.” And that’s how the whole thing started and, lyrically, I put the lyrics on afterwards. This may sound cliché but I just kind of like wanted to write my train song. It was more kind of like tongue and cheek. “You call yourself blues, Bonamassa, but you don’t have a song about a train. No self-respecting blues man would play the blues without having a song about a train, and it’s a real star live, it comes off like the Jeff Beck Group, and that’s what it kind of sounds like to me, early Jeff Beck group stuff, and that’s cool. It think that it’s a really cool song and I knew as soon as it went down in the studio in one take that it was a real star, and we’ll be playing this live, until nobody wants to come see me anymore.
BW: And then the next song, “Dust Bowl,” continues with that chugging train sound.
JB: That was like the spaghetti western. So it was a one, two punch where we had to check off two of the things, a spaghetti western and a song about a train. It was little Duane Eddy kind of stuff.
BW: The title Dust Bowl immediately brought to my mind John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Have you ever read it?
JB: That was kind of the whole concept of it. It was the Steinbeck reference of it and the other thing was, how sometimes you get into your own little world and you feel like you’re in this pressure cooker where there is a constant tornado. I was feeling that way when I was writing, because I was really under the gun to write and produce some stuff, and I looked outside the windows of the studio and it was like a dust storm, like the wind had kicked up, because it was very arid, where we were recording in Santorini, Greece, and it was a dust bowl.
BW: While you were in Greece did you visit Athens and the Parthenon?
JB: Santorini is an island about an hour flight off the coast of Greece, but I’ve played in Athens several times and it’s a fantastic gig and we had really great fans there, just smoking. So that was cool, but I have not seen the Parthenon, other than flying over it when we were arriving. I really wanted to, but on show dates you’re really under the gun. But Santorini is where the lost city of Atlantis is supposed to have been before the volcano took it out.
BW: That’s even better than the Parthenon. Your popularity and that of the blues, in Greece and other parts of the world, is phenomenal. I mean there are blues bands in Poland and Australia and it’s crazy the way it’s spread around the world.
JB: It really is a universal language, because when you start a slow blues song in any country in the world, people cheer. You know what I mean? It’s such a universal language. It’s just one of those things where you just go, my god, you know? We do a song called “Blues Deluxe” and I can start that in Moscow, and they go, “Uh, cool,” or you can start it in Phoenix, which is where I’m at now, and they go “Oh, cool.” It’s like the difference in climates and cultures are from the American Southwest to the capitol of Russia, and for some reason that kind of music speaks to everybody on some kind of level, and it’s no different when you play Greece or Turkey or Israel or Australia or India. It’s that kind of thing. It’s a very cool thing overall.
BW: It is amazing the way that blues has traveled around the world. I met someone who had a blues band in Paris a few years ago. With the worldwide impact that the blues has had, how would you describe what the blues is to a musical novice?
JB: Blues has a different definition to a lot of different people. I can tell you what my definition is it’s everything from Zeppelin to the late, great Hubert Sumlin. I just got a text before I called you. I guess Hubert died today or something.
BW: He did?
JB: It’s even on my website now. He was a sweetheart, too. I guess it was heart failure, but it’s now just starting to come out.
To be continued…
Bob Gersztyn is a contributing writer and photographer at BluesWax.
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