Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 Sept-Oct Contents 40 Rhythms
He strides on stage. Suited and tall, he casts a shadow.
Slim shades covering his eyes, hair slicked just so.
He’s done it countless times and people have seen
it all before but he still strides to his place at the
front, always the front, and he commands attention,
wielding his guitar and the band begin to vamp and he
looks around, surveys it all, drinks in the noise, flaring
his nostrils and smelling it too.
Lights flash and dim, bright again and he begins to
play, stabbing and wrangling – slick, shmick, swinging
dick – the sound is precise and it cuts, slice and dice,
back and forward every which way and the rolling
thunderhead gathers momentum, the big sound
(effortlessly agile for its size) breaking over all who
dare stand in its way.
Joe Bonamassa sits a little hunched over. He’s wearing
jeans and a non-descript jumper, sneakers. He’s holding
one of his many guitars, a Les Paul which he constantly
strokes, leans over it, it’s a part of his body. It’s not
plugged in, but it’s easy to hear, he runs licks whenever
there’s a break in conversation, whenever I ask him a
question. Listening back to the tape, all my questions
are soundtracked by the fluid twang of his unplugged
I’ve spoken to Bonamassa, blues guitar prodigy, a number
of times before but never in the flesh. He seems smaller
when not on stage. No less confident, more talkative in
fact, but smaller, a little more fragile like being on stage
is some sort of a life force. In an hour or so, he’ll get
his fill, over on the Crossroads Stage at the sprawling
Byron Bay Bluesfest. His mindset is beginning to shift,
and so despite the fact he’s keen to talk, he’s shifting
and beginning to think like a man with something to
do, something important. He changes direction mid-
sentence, his eyes flicker from his guitar to my face, to
the darkening sky, to the people milling about backstage.
He’s getting ready.
At one point, he looks over at the lagoon that encircles
the artist area. He asks me if there are any ‘gators in there,
which I find amusing because there are no ‘gators (or
crocodiles) this far south, and also because Graham Nash
had asked me the same question only 24 hours earlier.
I tell him there definitely aren’t any, and he looks up
instead and sees a flock of bats passing low overhead in
the gathering gloom and he exclaims, and wonders where
the hell he is. Then he laughs and strokes his guitar again
and we carry on.
“Oh my god, to hear my mental conversation during
a gig, Freud would have a field day,” he’s saying. I’ve
ventured that he’s somewhat of a perfectionist, something
anyone who has seen him play would have picked up on.
“He’d be like, ‘Do you want to do this for a living? Do you
hate yourself that much?’”. Yeah, it’s like a prize fight. You
can train for six months, you can spar with the best in the
world, you can lay it all out, and you know, when you’re
backstage just about to go on, you know as soon as the
bell rings, it’s gonna be utter fucking chaos.
“How you win the day [though], is just trust in the force,
you know what I mean? It may not sound the way you
want it to sound, it may not feel the way it normally feels,
but the pure inertia and it worked yesterday, it’ll work
today. It’s that kinda vibe.”
Since he was 12, when he first opened for BB King, Joe
Bonamassa has been in the spotlight. In the ensuing 27
years, he’s built for himself this perfectionist persona, and
even if it is, as he says, utter fucking chaos, it still comes
across as perfection, as being in the right place at the
right time, everything seemingly exactly where it should
be, even if that’s not the case.
He’s built for himself too, a reputation as one of the finest
interpreters of the blues form in the world. He’s certainly
not a purist, not musically, and indeed many critics
cite the whole style-over-substance argument when
describing what he’s done over the course of his 12 studio
albums (along with a slew of live records, collaborations
and side-projects). But regardless of what you think of
his music, or how he plays the blues, he is certainly a
perfectionist. And a very good one, too.
Bonamassa is back in Australia in September, only four
or five months after our initial interview, in order to
properly promote his latest release, Blues Of Desperation,
which was officially released in the US a couple of days
prior to Bluesfest. It’s an album which sees him coming
back to basics, in that after a number of years exploring
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