If the turn of the millennium seemed like an unlikely flashpoint for a blues boom, then Joe Bonamassa initially seemed an odd man to lead it.
While the hipster media fell for the spidery cool of Jack White and his lo-fi clatter, Bonamassa set out his stall: an ego-free blues scholar from upstate New York, whose idea of a supermodel was a ’59 Les Paul. Though technically impeccable, this scruffy, bulky, 12-bar merchant was a hard sell.
“I honestly didn’t think anyone with the surname Bonamassa was ever gonna be famous,” producer Kevin Shirley recalls of his first impressions. “I remember sending him an email saying: ‘Joe, you look like a fucking slob.’”
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. When Shirley came aboard for 2006’s You & Me he drew a line in the sand, encouraging the guitarist to fire his band, shine his shoes and, critically, ditch the dead-eyed showboating to find his voice as a songwriter. “I thought if he wanted to be something different he’d have to bend the rules.”
So they began. Appropriately, for a man whose new suit-and-shades stage persona evoked a blues-rock Terminator, Bonamassa was relentless throughout the noughties, touring with a masochistic zeal, spraying guest-spots over endless side-projects and each year delivering studio albums whose sales climbed alongside their quality.
On May 4, 2009, when Eric Clapton walked on stage at the Royal Albert Hall to joust with the thirty-something Bonamassa on Further On Up The Road, it’s not too glib to suggest that a baton was passed.
And yet, much like Clapton, for every instance of ‘God’ graffiti (or its online equivalent), there’s someone taking pot-shots. Bonamassa is the world’s greatest copycat, some say, while others argue that he’s pulled the blues genre too far beyond its prescribed 12 bars. “The backlash?” the guitarist said in 2013. “There already is one. I’m one of the most argued-about players.”
Inevitably there have been missteps in this most prolific of recording careers. But in Bonamassa’s catalogue you’ll find moments when he sails beyond the status of a mere guitar hero and comes within touching distance of genius.
Here, then, is the best of Bonamassa as it stands – though you’d be advised to watch this space. As Shirley reminds us: “He’s never going to stop."
Kevin Shirley’s arrival as producer/taskmaster brought chest-hair to the previous year’s You & Me, but it was his goading on Sloe Gin that pushed Bonamassa beyond bar-room cliché to genuine brilliance.
Conceptually, the album recalled Led Zeppelin III, with heavy-hitters like Dirt In My Pocket sitting alongside campfire-with-attitude cuts such as Ball Peen Hammer. And while the cover of Bad Company’s Seagull brought the house down, it was originals such as Around The Bend that announced the guitarist as a real contender. And the album gave him a No.1 placing on the Billboard Blues Chart.
Tracking in Las Vegas in January 2014, after a two-year creative dry spell during which gunslingers like Gary Clark Jr. had jostled his podium, Bonamassa found himself in the unusual position of having to prove himself. On this evidence, shit-or-bust agrees with him.
Bar the reboot of Hendrix’s Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), Different Shades was an all-original classic, co-written alongside the cream of Nashville and knocked out of the park by a line-up on fire. With highlights such as the brass-bolstered Love Ain’t A Love Song and the wee-small-hours So, What Would I Do, the album established Bonamassa as a songwriter with every colour in his palette.
Burnt out by the Black Country Communion tour and busted for new material, the guitar hero “couldn’t make his fingers work at all” when sessions began, says Kevin Shirley. Dust Bowl was rescued only after the producer held Bonamassa under virtual house arrest. The tactic turned the ignition key and galvanised what is arguably the JB’s most atmospheric album.
On the piston-pumps of Slow Train and the bobbing rockabilly of Tennessee Plates you can almost feel Bonamassa shaking off the torpor, and by the outro of Prisoner he’d snatched a classic from the jaws of a car crash.
Every Bonamassa album is guided by a keyword, and for this seventh it was ‘swampy’. Fittingly for a record named after a hammer-toting US folk hero, John Henry was heavier than anything Bonamassa had released before.
Yet the greater departure was the emotional heft, with the wistful Happier Times and The Great Flood’s bereft solo laying bare a man who had previously lurked behind sunglasses. “Making the first half of the album,” he reflected, “I was in the happiest place I’d ever been in my life. The second half found me in completely the opposite state.”
The press shots of Bonamassa, slumped against a brick wall, thumbing a vintage comic, hinted at the fan-boy themes of this tenth release (“Basically, the Beano record was the template and the universal language”).
Originals such as the haunted title track and the jagged travelogue Dislocated Boy were songs to conjure with, but just as captivating were the raucous Stones In My Passway and a retool of Who’s Been Talking? that sampled Howlin’ Wolf. The guitarist was rewarded with his highest chart placings so far: UK No.2 and No.23 in the US.
With three songs cranked out each day, 2 represents both the supergroup’s peak and modern rock’s greatest rush job. While Glenn Hughes was also 2’s principal writer, Bonamassa revelled in what he called “an excuse to rock unapologetically”, channelling Page on monolith harmony riffs like I Can See Your Spirit, and restaging The Battle Of Evermore with his mandolin work on The Battle For Hadrian’s Wall.
At the close of 2011, Classic Rock named Black Country Communion Breakthrough Act Of The Year. Sadly, the cracks were already perceptible.
Bonamassa co-wrote the songs with his new best friend, former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden, with additional contributions from Pete Brown (Cream’s lyricist), Jools Holland and Dave Stewart.
The ever-present Shirley opted for a big sound that characterised the album from the outset, from the grandiose, sweeping orchestral arrangement on When One Door Opens to the spontaneous-sounding hard stomp of the title track, where JoBo's guitar veers almost subconsciously between Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. It's meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.
Call him what you like, but you can’t accuse Bonamassa of going through the motions. Back in 2012 there was a distinct whiff of death-or-glory when the guitarist assembled a motley crew of world instrumentalists in the Austrian capital (“This could either go down really well,” he conceded, “or else we’re screwed here”).
On the night, the concept flew, vindicating Bonamassa’s greatest stylistic stretch and, with reworkings of Dislocated Boy and Around The Bend, reminding us that beneath those top-billed chops is one of the best writers in the business.
Recorded on the Greek island of Santorini, Black Rock finds the guitarist off the map and outside the box. He’d set out to counter the sombre John Henry with “the feel-good album of the summer”, but ultimately this eighth release became his closest thing to a world-music record, as he invited local bouzouki players into the studio and emerged with culture-splicing cuts like Athens To Athens.
Black Rock was contentious, but it scotched any notion that Bonamassa was a careerist blues-box automaton. “We’re always trying to open up windows to this mansion that is the blues,” noted Kevin Shirley, “and let all these influences in and out.”