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Photo by Jeff Katz
Joe Bonamassa can’t stop. Between his solo work, his duet albums with Beth Hart, his stint in Black Country Communion, and other projects, the acclaimed guitarist has recorded eight studio albums and three live packages since 2010 alone. Though we don’t have hard stats, it’s probably safe to wager that few guitarists at his level are quite so prolific these days.
Asked about his apparent inability to sit still for half a breath, Bonamassa is matter-of- fact: “I’m a professional musician, and that’s what professional musicians do.” But what’s just as impressive as the amount of work recently put out by the 35-year-old New Haven, New York, native—who rose to fame as a blues/blues-rock wunderkind playing alongside Miles Davis’ and Robby Krieger’s sons in Bloodline at the age of 14—is how much he’s branching out beyond what everyone has come to expect from him.
For instance, his Rock Candy Funk Party project’s new We Want Groove album finds Bonamassa cranking out ’70s and ’80s funk-jazz flavors, and his even newer An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (available as a double CD or LP, DVD, or Blu-ray) finds him hanging up his ’59 Les Paul and grabbing a Martin O-17 to rework his catalog with an eclectic group of musicians from around the globe.
Despite his grueling touring and recording schedule, Bonamassa proclaims he wouldn’t have it any other way and insists he’s still having fun doing what he does best. “I happen to be in the fortunate position that I don’t have to do stuff that isn’t fun.”
What inspired you to stage an all-acoustic show at, of all places, the Vienna Opera House?
It’s one of those “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” situations. In this case, it was the chicken: We already had the show booked—I had already played there in 2011 with Black Country Communion. It was probably the craziest [expletive] gig ever. I mean, why would you bring a wild hard-rock band to a place where someone like Brahms conducted operas and concertos? In the end, it worked out okay … not great, but it worked. Anyway, we called the guy who booked the jazz fest, and he told us it was only available for a couple of weeks a year. I would have loved to go back and play there with the band, but it just wasn’t very well suited for electric music—the place is not designed for it. So we picked the date and thought, “Well, what can we do with it?” That’s when the idea came to do an acoustic show.
Originally, I told my producer, Kevin Shirley, “Why don’t I just go out there and surround myself with a bunch of guitars, sing the songs acoustically, and just play by myself.” So he goes, “That sounds like an extremely boring night out. What we should do is put together a new band, like a group of world musicians and do some really strange, messed-up arrangements of the songs.”
How much time did you spend rehearsing with the band?
We rehearsed for three days. But there was a lot of woodshedding—I spent a lot of time in my room singing and playing songs. It was a lot of work, both vocally and musically, to get our head around these versions. When the crew was setting up on day one, they were running a couple of hours late so we all kind of huddled in the corner and just started playing. Once we all started playing together, it soon became evident that it was going to be killer.
How difficult was it to translate some of the more rocking numbers in your repertoire to an acoustic format?
Essentially, they are blues songs, so we just reversed the process. Like, “Slow Train” is just a straight-ahead, 12/8 shuffle, and it could have easily been a traditional blues song. The same thing goes for “The Ballad of John Henry.” That song is just a one-chord phenomenon, so it was easy to strip it back. You don’t need to have the heavy riff—you just need to kind of rearrange it.
What about songs like Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway”—was it hard to avoid making it sound too much like the original?
Well, we had just finished recording an electric version of that on Driving Toward the Daylight, so we essentially split the difference between the original version and the version that we did. It all fell together pretty easily. I was actually shocked, because I was worried that one was going to fight us.
Were there any acoustic players or performances that inspired you before these shows?
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is pretty much the benchmark for how to rearrange one’s catalog. The thoughts going on in my head were, “What would Ry Cooder do? What would Peter Gabriel do?” That was kind of where the arrangements came from, and it really boiled down to picking the right guitar, the right key, and hitting the vocal—if you anchor it around something that works, then you can add to it.
With that band and the odd collection of instruments, did you ever feel constrained in your playing—and was there room for improvisation?
I was encouraged! Then I was encouraging others to play more, because when you go from big songs like “Sloe Gin” or “Mountain Time”—with these long, grandiose guitar solos—then all of a sudden you’re sitting there with a Martin D-41 and there is no sustain, you’re facing a cold reality where there is a big difference between where I would normally fit in this situation and where we are now. That whole tour really made me a better musician, I think. I came out learning a lot about myself vocally, I learned a lot about music, and I learned a lot about stripping a song down to its core and not being tied to the big guitar solo at the end to sell it.