If you were searching for Joe Bonamassa’s new record, Different Shades of Blue, in an actual record store (remember those?), you’d likely find it in the blues section. But like most of the work he’s put out since 2000, the material is decidedly more rocking as well. Still, the 37-year-old singer-guitarist says he’s fine with the term, on both a professional and a personal level.
“You’ve got to label me something, and that’s fine. I don’t think that ‘blues’ is a bad word at all!” Bonamassa says just prior to the record’s release, on Tuesday, and a fall tour. “I think all of my records can be in the rock section, but I don’t mind being in the blues. There’s a lot of good company there!”
Besides, Bonamassa thinks that national listening trends may have finally caught up with him.
“Look at the Black Keys, they’re playing to huge arenas of people, playing blues,” he says. “And Jack White covers ‘Grinnin’ in Your Face’ by Son House, and he’s huge. I think this proves that blues-rock can be popular again. It’s just the way you package it.”
Audiences in Great Britain, where blues-rock arguably germinated first, have certainly embraced Bonamassa. For while he sells out 3,000- to 5,000-seat venues here in the U.S., he gigs at larger venues there, all while getting generous coverage in U.K. music mags like Mojo, Uncut, and Classic Rock.
“The press has always been good to me there. Here in America, they’ve been slower to respond,” Bonamassa offers, citing a more rigid stateside definition of modern blues-rock as “all guys with Stratocasters trying to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
And indeed, the 11 tracks on Different Shades of Blue run the gamut of the genre, from electric rave-ups and smoldering ballads to horn-heavy big-band sounds and dirty organ workouts. The album marks Bonamassa’s 10th collaboration with producer Kevin Shirley (who he says is “ingrained” with him at this point), but the first in which he been involved with the writing of every cut. This time his collaborators include country songwriters James House and Jerry Flowers and longtime Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain.
“I know he gets typecast because of Journey, but Jon is a deep musical cat,” Bonamassa offers. “He’s well-versed in blues and rock and is a session ace. He’s a brilliant musician all the way around.”
Of course, since the days that “Open Arms” and “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” first hit the charts, the methods of simply getting the music to both diehard fans and potential new listeners have changed dramatically. In that vein, Bonamassa and his management have fully embraced social media and all of its platforms. To his “couple million” followers on Facebook (actually 2.26 million as of this writing), he posted the title track of the new record last month. According to the artist, it has been streamed more than 7 million times.
“Think about how much effort it would take for me to get just 70 spins of that song on radio!” he laughs. “Musicians just have to put the music out there in any way we can. And the internet is a big part of that.”
And speaking of the internet…Bonamassa is free to concentrate on his solo career now, following the messy dissolution of his previous group, Black Country Communion. Messy because that band’s singer-bassist and rock legend Glenn Hughes started and engaged in an online tiff with Bonamassa, sulkily claiming that the group could not tour due to the guitarist’s solo schedule. But is that the real story?
“That’s pretty accurate, to a point,” Bonamassa says. “But here’s the real deal. When we got together as a band, I was very upfront with everyone. With Jason [Bonham], Derek [Sherinian], and Glenn about what I do for a living. I play blues-rock, and I’m pretty successful at it, and that was what was funding the whole adventure of the band.
“I would have been an idiot, and my company would have gone bankrupt, if I had kept going like that,” he continues.
Bonamassa says Black Country’s record sales and touring revenue paled in comparison to what he could make on his own, and that he took the burden of those losses. That band might play “to a thousand people on a good night,” he explains, but still “squeeze [his] company for daily minimals and all this rock-star bullshit.”
He also didn’t appreciate Hughes “calling him out” in the media.
“He kind of tried to go out there and put this spin of ‘poor me, this great rock band can’t tour because of this blues-rock curmudgeon.’ As if I was keeping Black Country Communion from world domination,” Bonamassa continues.
After the current tour, Bonamassa says, there is “more touring” ahead, along with another studio record, live concert DVD, and stint at Radio City Music Hall. But the gig closest to his heart will likely be the inaugural “Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea” Florida-Bahamas cruise next February. The seafaring journey will find Bonamassa headlining a roster that will also include John Hiatt, Robben Ford, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and others.
The trip benefits the foundation of the same name that Bonamassa started to fund projects, programs, shows, and scholarships for music teachers and students. Its website claims that 18,000 lives have been impacted.
“It’s for school music programs and the money they need for books or classes,” he sums up. “Or we get companies like Ernie Ball involved, and they’ll send guitar strings. And this could be the first cruise…or the last!”
For more on Joe Bonamassa and his music, visit www.jbonamassa.com
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 23, 2014