Grinding His Axe – Joe Bonamassa

Ace Guitarist Joe Bonamassa Rocks Victoria Theatre

Joe Bonamassa’s new CD, Black Rock, arrives just 13 months after his previous release, The Ballad of John Henry. In an age when most acts go two or three years between albums, this qualifies as express delivery of new music.

It turns out that Bonamassa didn’t really anticipate that he’d finish Black Rock quite as quickly as it happened.

“Originally we’d agreed to record half a record and it turned into a full one,” the guitarist/singer said in an early March phone interview.

The new CD is named after the studio in Santorini, Greece where the bulk of the recording was done and if the majestic hillside setting shown in one of the photos in the Black Rock CD is any indication, it’s easy to see how this could have been an inspiring setting for Bonamassa, his producer (Kevin Shirley) and the musicians.

“Of course it had (an effect), the geography of it all was very much the impetus in the sound of the album,” Bonamassa said. “If we had recorded the album in London or whatever, it would sound a lot different.”

Many of the songs on “Black Rock” were written quickly at Black Rock Studios, Bonamassa said and the entire session lasted just five weeks. That sort of scenario is nothing unusual for him. For The Ballad of John Henry, he began writing material for that album just two weeks before going into the studio and that’s been typical for most of his albums.

Bonamassa, who said he doesn’t stockpile songs and enjoys the pressure of writing under a tight deadline, admits he has never had doubts about whether he has lived with songs long enough before recording and releasing them or whether the songs will stand up over time.

“For me, I never really question it,” he said. “If I’m a fan of it, then I’m happy. The only person I try to satisfy is myself. Those are the kinds of things that if you start second guessing yourself, you chase your tail and you never release a record.”

As his output of eight solo studio albums since 2000 indicates, Bonamassa, has not been shy about releasing music. A native of Utica, New York, Bonamassa, 32, was performing before his teens. By the time he was 12, he had played some 20 shows with blues legend B.B. King, who was an early supporter of the young guitarist. Bonamassa was only a year older when he met another guitar legend, the late Danny Gatton. The guitarist took Bonamassa under his wing and introduced him to jazz, rockabilly and other styles Bonamassa had yet to discover – a process that certainly played a role in the way Bonamassa’s music has come to mix rock, jazz and other styles with blues.

Bonamassa’s real coming out party, though, came in 1995 with the debut of his band Bloodline. The group got plenty of attention because it included the sons of three famous music figures – drummer Eric Davis was the son of jazz legend Miles Davis, guitarist Waylon Krieger was the son of Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and bassist Barry Oakley Jr. was the son of the late Allman Brothers Band bassist.

Despite that notoriety, the group was largely a vehicle for Bonamassa’s eye-opening guitar skills. But after releasing a bluesy debut CD in 1995 on EMI Records, the group broke up over disagreements over what musical direction to pursue going forward. Bonamassa then went solo.

At first, much of the attention centered around Bonamassa’s talent as a guitarist. This made sense considering that on early albums like his 2000 debut, A New Day Yesterday and 2002’s So, It’s Like That, Bonamassa was clearly a work in progress when it came to singing and songwriting.

Yet even as early as So, It’s Like That, he was already showing signs that he wanted his guitar skills showcased within the context of strong songs, rather than having his songs simply function as frameworks for his playing.

The Ballad of John Henry represented one of Bonamassa’s most ambitious albums stylistically, with a number of songs having an epic feel that went well beyond the blues-rock signature of the guitarist’s early records.

With Black Rock, though, Bonamassa went for more of a direct sound.

“I wanted to make a vital record that had a lot of kind of youthful qualities to it,” Bonamassa said. “I wanted to really, like, jettison that John Henry majestic thing and go back and make a rock record.”

Mission was accomplished with the thunderous original “Wandering Earth” (with a guitar riff worthy of Led Zeppelin), a driving version of Jeff Beck’s “Spanish Boots” and a hard-hitting take on Bobby Parker’s “Steal Your Heart Away.” In addition, Black Rock is not a one-dimensional work. Particularly intriguing is his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire,” which gets a slow and muscular treatment, while the Bonamassa original, “Quarryman’s Lament,” is an evocative folky track with accordion and exotic Middle Eastern overtones.

Another highlight is a rousing take on the King classic, “Night Life,” on which Bonamassa is joined by King himself. It’s one of the few tracks not recorded at Black Rock. Instead, Bonamassa cut his parts in Malibu, California while King recorded his in Las Vegas.

“We wanted to do something that he knew,” Bonamassa said of the collaboration. “Obviously we’re not going to go ‘Hey B.B., I’ve got this great original song. Can I show you the lyrics?’ It’s like I wanted him to be comfortable. He’s 84 … We chose ‘Night Life.’ It’s one of my favorite songs off of Blues Is Kiing and the rest is history.”

Bonamassa, who is touring in a four-piece format, said he has added “four or five” Black Rock songs to his live set so far.

“We may add more once the CD gets released,” he said. “There have been a few tracks that have leaked, so we’re kind of doing the leaked tracks first. We’re trying to prevent the blank stares.”

The tour behind Black Rock isn’t the only thing on Bonamassa’s plate at the moment. He plans to return to the studio to complete an album with a side group he has formed with Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham (son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) and Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian.

“Glenn and I have been friends for awhile and we had always been trying to figure out how to do something (together),” Bonamassa said. “We wanted to make it not just Bona-Hughes or Hughes-amassa. So I said let’s try a band … It’s been a lot of fun and it’s a good group. But then, until we have a record out, there’s really not much to talk about.”

That might be the case, but Bonamassa said the CD should be out in the fall and he also offered some general hints about the kind of music fans can expect from the group.

“It’s very much rock,” he said, noting that the group’s music doesn’t sound like his solo work. “There’s no reason to do a side project that’s an extension of what you do for your day job. The good thing about this is that it is, quite frankly, something I could never get away with on the solo front. It’s a departure and an excuse for me to get my rock guitar vibe going again.”

Joe Bonamassa will perform Sunday, May 2 at 8 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Tickets are $43-$73. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com

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