A Bona fide rocker
American blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa has played with such legends as Eric Clapton and BB King. Ahead of his Belfast gig this weekend, he tells Brian Elliott of the Irish influence to his work
Such was the music industry of the time that even as recently as 20 years ago, the world's greatest guitar players were household names.
The likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Brian May, and Eddie Van Halen prove the point. But in today's age of celebrity, it's pop performers like Lady GaGa, Shakira, and Britney Spears who are known in that familiar way.
Thankfully, the great guitarists haven't stopped developing; they are just harder to find. But for Northern Irish fans, that issue is being resolved this weekend when blues-rock virtuoso Joe Bonamassa arrives to play the Waterfront Hall.
“It's great to have the fans all up on ya, for lack of a better term,” Bonamassa says. “Every once in a while it's nice to come back to where you started, and play a good, old-fashioned rock club gig.
“It gets the juices flowing for sure, but the kind of venues we're playing now are really awesome, and we're thankful for the success we've had, and the things that have happened for us this year.
“So it's kind of bittersweet, but any chance we do get to perform at a smaller club, it really is a lot of fun. It's nice to be able to perform in front of as many people as you can, and I don't think there's anyone who could truthfully say to the contrary.”
Incredibly, Bonamassa began his musical education at the tender age of five, when he was given his first guitar as a present. |It was his father who introduced him to the type of music he now plays, but he still believes there |is plenty of room for further |education.
“My father played guitar, and he had a guitar shop, so it was a natural progression for me to follow in my dad's footsteps,” he says. “He very kindly bought me my first guitar, and he played me a lot of great records when I was a kid. He was one of those kind of guys who had Jethro Tull in his collection, and I used to listen to things like that all the time. It was a fun time, and from that I grew up with all of this kind of music going around in my head.
“Today, I'm still learning, and that learning is a real passion of mine. I like to learn things from other bands. I've never stopped trying to grow as a musician, and I've never stopped trying to write the things that I hear in my head.
“A lot of times its very difficult to articulate what you hear in your head, and put that down on a piece of paper, or on CD. But with the help of people like (producer) Kevin Shirley, that process has become a lot easier.”
Interestingly, two of the major musical influences on the 32-year-old's style have come from Ireland — Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore. In the case of the late Gallagher, not only did the seminal live recording Irish Tour '74 appeal to Bonamassa's sensibilities, but so did the down-to-earth attitude of the man himself.
“There were two things about Rory Gallagher that hit it off with me — his style and his persona,” says Joe. “He actually looked like my dad; he had the long hair and the flannel shirt, and he looked like he worked in the factory from nine-to-five and then went home, got his Strat, and played a gig that night. So I was taken with Rory from a very early age because he reminded me of my dad.
“Rory also had this way of making the blues accessible to everyone. He was a blue collar, working class hero. The people wanted to cheer for a guy who looked and came across that way, as opposed to someone who had the slick rock star kind of look that you see a lot.”
Belfast's Gary Moore may have had more of that rock star look during his time in bands such as Thin Lizzy, but even more so than Gallagher, there's a close association between the sound that Moore achieved with his famous Les Paul guitar, and that which Bonamassa has with the same instrument.
But whereas Moore often seemed to drift between his hard rock and blues sensibilities, Bonamassa is fairly secure with the style of music he's best known for now.
“Around 15 years or so ago, Gary Moore was responsible for a major resurgence in blues-rock,” he says.
“He had a hit in America, he had a hit in the UK, he was huge in Europe, and was one of those guys who, if he hadn't have been there, I wouldn't be here now either. He paved the way for people like me, and served as a bridge between Stevie Ray Vaughan and the blues-rock scene of today. Gary was, and is, one of the finest guitar players in the world.
“I haven't really had the urge to do something out of my norm,” he adds when asked about making his own hard rock recording, a la Moore's Thin Lizzy days.
“I'm really enjoying what I'm doing now, so why change? I'm really having a hard time getting my head around making any sort of change of pace at all. There are still places that I think I can take my music, and I'd like people to be able to hear my music and realise that it's Joe Bonamassa.”
Whereas Gallagher and Moore were idols of Bonamassa's youth, there always remained one guitar player who stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the budding musician's mind: Eric Clapton. It was therefore a thrilling moment for Bonamassa to actually play on stage with the former Cream guitarist in May 2009.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” he says. “For me, Clapton was a god — he was the first and foremost, the start, the finish, the beginning, and the end. When I spoke to him, he was very complimentary about the fact that we'd taken something from barely nothing, just from scratch, and built it to where we could sell out the Albert Hall.”
Following on from Belfast on December 6, there are just twelve days remaining on this tour, culminating in a visit to Israel. When he lands back on home soil, there are just minor touches to be added to a new album before the touring cycle starts again in February.
“We've been in Moscow, we've been in Athens, and we're going to Tel Aviv in a couple of weeks. It's been the greatest year of my life, but it's also been incredibly taxing on the mind, body, and soul. But you know, ten years ago I never would have dreamed that I'd be able to do things week-to-week that other people have to wait a lifetime for, so the travelling is really inconsequential in my mind.
“The new album is called Black Rock, and it's 99% done right now. It's a bit heavier than the last album but it's still very bluesy, so it's not a particularly grand departure, and actually I think that if you refined my first studio album (A New Day Yesterday), that's pretty much where I think we're at.”
Joe Bonamassa plays at the Waterfront Hall this Sunday, December 6. Tickets are available from www.waterfront.co.uk