Ain’t nothin’ like the blues-rock
ASPEN When Joe Bonamassa was 11, and appearing at a music festival in upstate New York, he was approached by the late Danny Gatton. Presumably, Gatton, who was ranked No. 63 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, was not in the habit of hanging around preteen musicians. But apparently, he felt Bonamassa deserving of his attention.”We were both into Tele’s [guitar-speak for Fender’s Telecaster guitar] that kind of Tele blues, aggressive thing,” said Bonamassa in a phone conversation. “We talked blues, and [Gatton] said, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’ He told me, ‘You don’t know anything about jazz. You don’t know anything about country or early rock ‘n’ roll.’ He opened my eyes up to another world.”That brief session turned into a full-fledged mentorship, as Bonamassa sat in with Gatton’s band frequently when the latter visited the youngster’s native upstate New York.Whatever knowledge Gatton imparted seems to have taken hold quickly. The following year, Bonamassa met another guitar great, B.B. King (No. 3 on the Rolling Stone list). This time, the older musician didn’t offer much in the way of instruction. Instead, King offered the 12-year-old Bonamassa a slot as the opening act for his tour.Now 30, Bonamassa isn’t necessarily the young guitar-slinger. “I’m less the young guy. People are looking at me like, ‘Hey, this guy survived this thing,'” said Bonamassa, who performs Sunday at Belly Up Aspen. As he aged, one thing Bonamassa learned is that new inspiration can come from anywhere, not just from legendary guitar-players. Among the people he is looking to lately is a blues player younger than himself, far younger. L.D. Miller, a 13-year-old harmonica player from Indiana, appeared on Bonamassa’s 2006 CD, “You & Me,” contributing to a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral and My Trial.”
“He has the greatest concept of musicianship of any artist I’ve ever seen, at any age. He’s a true prodigy,” raved Bonamassa. “That inspires me – he’s that good now. What’s he going to be like in 10 years?”For his latest CD, “Sloe Gin,” released last month, Bonamassa looked again to an older player – but not a guitarist. “Sloe Gin” is modeled after Rod Stewart’s 1969 solo debut, “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down.” It wasn’t the blues-rock guitar that knocked Bonamassa out (though Ron Wood, a future Rolling Stone, was the man responsible for the guitar-playing on the album). Instead, it was the way Stewart deftly mixed acoustic and electric sounds on songs like the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” the folk standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and the hit “Handbags and Gladrags.”In fact, it was an older guitarist and sometime actor – Little Steven Van Zandt, from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and from “The Sopranos” – who gave Bonamassa a copy of “Old Raincoat,” with the advice to check it out. Bonamassa was instantly impressed with the style of the record. “He mixed heavy blues with straightforward acoustic music,” said Bonamassa, noting that Stewart had made the album while he was still a member of the Jeff Beck Group. “The blend was so refreshing you never got tired of one or the other.”Timing, however, was not on Bonamassa’s side. It was 10 years ago that he got turned onto the Stewart record, and while his guitar chops may have been up to par, his singing was not yet strong enough to aim at Stewart-style vocals.”Where my head was and where my skills were as a singer had to correspond,” he said. “I had to wait till my skills as a singer caught up to my ambitions.”Bonamassa didn’t just sit back and wait. After forming Bloodline – a band that featured the sons of Miles Davis, original Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley, and Doors’ guitarist Robbie Krieger – Bonamassa released his debut solo album, “A New Day Yesterday,” in 2000. The album was a hit, and just as much as it was a success story in itself, it was a learning experience, as Gregg Allman, Rick Derringer and Leslie West made guest appearances. Still, Bonamassa singles out the producer – the late Tom Dowd, who had worked with countless jazz, R&B and rock acts – as the biggest influence.
“He was in the same kind of league” as the musicians who appeared on the album, said Bonamassa. “A brilliant man who taught me about being a good man and a good person.”Bonamassa’s next albums bounced between blues-fueled rock and rock-edged blues. “So It’s Like That,” from 2002, leaned toward rock; “Blues Deluxe” – released in 2003, the “Year of the Blues” – mostly covered old blues classics; and last year’s “You & Me” dove even deeper into blues territory. Uniting the three albums was the fact that each hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart.”Sloe Gin” is hardly outside the bounds Bonamassa has already staked. The album dwells solidly in a blues-rock vein. As usual with Bonamassa, there is a notable dose of the ’70s, a decade which he barely experienced but lives in his music. “Sloe Gin” includes covers of Ten Years After’s “One of These Days,” and “Seagull,” by Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rogers. But to Bonamassa, the album also represents several leaps forward. There is more acoustic guitar than ever, often layered with electric tones. And in the press notes that accompany the album, he says “singing is a bigger part of it for me than ever before.””I think it comes down to trying to grow,” he said by phone, “and not trying to repeat myself.”With nearly 20 years in the music business, it is an accomplishment merely to still be touring and making records. Bonamassa has watched as others of similar age and ability have flamed out both artistically and personally. He understands the difficulties: “There are a lot of people in the music business I wouldn’t buy a used guitar from,” he said.Bonamassa is grateful to have had shelter from such types, provided by his parents – including his father, a guitar shop owner – and various celebrity guitarists and behind-the-scenes producers.”A lot of [young musicians] became so entrapped in thinking ‘Wow, I get paid to meet girls and drink and stay up till 5 a.m.’ It’s broken a lot of people,” he said. “But I’ve never been in rehab, or even thought about it.”Tickets to Joe Bonamassa are $20. Show time is 10 p.m. Sunday at Belly Up, 450 S. Galena St.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org