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As Joe Bonamassa approaches his 25th year as a professional musician, he continues to blaze a remarkably versatile artistic trail, and amass an authentic, innovative and soulful body of work. Bonamassa’s career began onstage opening for B.B. King in 1989, when he was only 12 years old. Today, he is hailed worldwide as one of the greatest guitar players of his generation, and is an ever-evolving singer-songwriter who has released 15 solo albums in the last 13 years, all on his own label, J&R Adventures.
Bonamassa’s tour schedule consistently hovers at around 200 shows worldwide each year, and a heaping handful of markedly diverse side projects keep him thinking outside the box and flexing every musical muscle he’s got. He founded and oversees the non-profit Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation to promote the heritage of the blues to the next generation, fund music scholarships, and supplement the loss of music education in public schools.
In addition to live performances, 2013 will mark four major projects on the J&R release schedule: Bonamassa’s first-ever acoustic concert, recorded at the venerable Vienna Opera House with a global ensemble put together by Kevin Shirley; the neo-funk/jazz combo Rock Candy Funk Party; a second album—and first tour—with singer Beth Hart; and a career retrospective recorded and filmed at concerts at four iconic London venues, with show being chronicled for a separate release.
After that, another blues-rock solo album—aka Joe’s “day job”—will no doubt follow, and perhaps a fourth set with hard rock outfit Black Country Communion at some point. “Sometimes journalists just shake their heads, and ask me ‘Isn’t it risky?,’” says Joe. “But I say why not do it? Why play it safe? I want to diversify, not just always have it be business as usual.”
It all builds on Bonamassa’s ascendant prominence of the past few years. Recent kudos include five consecutive “Best Blues Guitarist” wins and a top “Best Overall Guitarist” honour in Guitar Player’s Annual Readers’ Choice Awards, and recognition as Billboard’s #1 Blues Artist, 2010— the year Joe Bonamassa: Live At The Royal Albert Hall was released, featuring Eric Clapton joining him onstage. Reviewing 2011’s Dust Bowl, Premier Guitar wrote, “Over time, Bonamassa has created his own universe that no longer has much to do with what we think of as traditional blues. It’s movie music for your mind with astonishingly great guitar playing.” Regarding Bonamassa’s 2012 album Driving Towards The Daylight (with guests including Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford), Guitar World called him the “roots-based six-string’s new king of pyromania.” Rolling Stone wrote, “His exacting singing blends with fiery symphonic playing.” In a review for the 2012 CD/DVD Joe Bonamassa: Beacon Theatre—Live From New York, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, “He makes every note matter and resonate emotionally.”
The first in the queue of Bonamassa’s 2013 releases is We Want Groove, the debut from Rock Candy Funk Party, a quartet of world renowned players who convened for the sheer joy of making music and mutual love for genre-blurring grooves. Featuring nine original tracks, the album—produced by drummer Tal Bergman—is a super-tight reboot of classic ’70s/ ’80s jazz-funk from musicians whose collective credits include, among many others, Joe Zawinul, Hugh Masekela, Prince, Ruth Brown, Chaka Khan, Simples Minds, Billy Idol, Tito Puente, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Levon Helm, Conan O’Brien, and Sheila E. In addition to Bonamassa and Bergman, the Rock Candy Funk Party line-up features Ron DeJesus (guitar), Mike Merritt (bass) and Renato Neto (keys).
For KPCC, Steve Hochman writes, “The result is music that at times echoes both [Jeff] Beck’s ‘70s albums and, oh, the soul-funk of Average White Band or Tower of Power, while Neto’s keyboards in particular add elements of fellow Brazilian Deodato and, in the more subdued passages, the atmospheric side of Weather Report.” Bonamassa himself says, “It really was the definition of collaboration, one of those records where you want to bottle the vibe and save it for all albums. It is still one of my most fun musical experiences to date, world-class players all around.”
Next up is An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (CD/DVD/Blu-ray), filmed in HD and recorded in Dolby 5.1 as part of Bonamassa’s unprecedented series of “unplugged” dates in Europe in 2012. Producer Kevin Shirley—a long-time creative partner of Bonamassa’s who has produced nine of his albums, and many more for artists including Led Zeppelin and John Hiatt—assembled a multi-cultural/world group especially for the project, which is the artist’s first-ever acoustic release. The Opera House in Vienna, regarded as the “City of Music,” was chosen for the main event because of its history and splendour, and association with many legendary composers. Accompanying Bonamassa on the same stage once graced by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, and Haydn are: traditional Irish fiddler Gerry O’Connor, who also plays mandolin and banjo; Swedish multi-instrumentalist Mats Wester on the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle; Los Angeles-based keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum texturing the mix with celeste, accordions, toy pianos, and assorted “organic” instruments; and renowned Puerto Rican percussionist Lenny Castro.
Joe recalls, “Originally, when I had the idea of doing an all-acoustic concert, I imagined doing it solo. I’d surround myself with a bunch of guitars, tell the background story of each song, and then play it. Kevin believed the show would be more exciting with a band and he got to work. All of a sudden, we had a five-piece group, and 72 hours to rehearse 20 or so songs. It was amazing, different than anything I’d ever done before.” An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House features gorgeously textured music made with a wealth of rare, vintage, organic, and “oddball” instruments. Highlights among the 22 songs include “Woke Up Dreaming”—the one acoustic song, and fan favourite, that Bonamassa regularly plays during his electric shows— as well as “Around The Bend,” “Driving Towards The Daylight,” “Ball Peen Hammer,” and “Sloe Gin.”
Bonamassa’s second album with blues-rock vocal diva Beth Hart reprises the powerful dual chemistry they generated on 2011’s Don’t Explain, a collection of ten soul and blues covers that both honours and rethinks the original recordings—classics made famous by artists including Billie Holiday, Etta James, Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Delaney & Bonnie, Bill Withers, and Aretha Franklin. Of the sessions for Don’t Explain, producer Kevin Shirley says, “Beth’s got a pretty heady voice, very reminiscent of Janis Joplin, and she’s also got a lot of Etta James in her, but hadn’t really accessed it yet. With this material, there is gentleness to the way she delivers the most heartfelt tunes that she hasn’t shown before.” Shirley will also produce the as-yet-untitled volume two, and Bonamassa and Hart (who recently brought down the house tributing Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center honours) are once again backed by the band featured on Bonamassa’s 2009 Blues chart-topper The Ballad of John Henry: Anton Fig (drums, percussion), Blondie Chaplin (guitar), and Carmine Rojas (bass), as well as Arlan Schierbaum (keyboards). They will also perform several concert dates in Europe.
While Bonamassa is always stretching creatively and looking forward, he will also celebrate his story so far in a major way this year. He and his band will visit London in the spring, and perform concerts—that will be recorded and filmed—at each of the four venues in which he’s has previously played, from smallest on up: The Borderline, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, HMV Hammersmith Apollo, and The Royal Albert Hall. Each show will feature a different configuration of the band, and a different selection of songs from Bonamassa’s extensive catalogue—nothing will be repeated. By year’s end, J&R Adventures will release a 2-disc DVD set from each of the four concerts; CDs of each show will come out in 2014.
Live-on-stage is exactly the right format for a career retrospective spotlighting an artist known for transformational live performances. “No one on the scene today plays with as much passion, has as much finesse and raw talent, has reverence for those who came before him, and has as much passion for his craft as Joe Bonamassa,” writes Classic Rock Revisited. But Bonamassa’s still got a long way to go, and will certainly in turn inspire many who come after him as he continues to reinvent himself with a varied palette of side projects—and logs endless miles “dressing up in sunglasses and a suit,” touring the world and growing his legacy as one of the greatest guitar slingers of all time.
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