Monday, December 19, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Musician of the Year 2011

He stands before a sold out crowd, covered in perspiration and a big smile. He beams at the audience as they scream for another few moments. Finally, he raises his hand, and the clamor settles. He steps forward towards the microphone, and says, "As I stand here before you, one word comes to mind. That word is gratitude."

Joe Bonamassa takes another minute out of an already incredibly long day, and thanks the audience in an obviously sincere, and emotional way. He then lines up with his band, and they proceed to take another night's bows. Once again, Bonamassa has managed to please his fans, his band, and himself - no mean feat for an artist in this day, in this economy, and in this world. He's managed to do this more days than not this year, and his incredible talent, integrity, stamina, and love of what he does has made him my artist of the year for 2011.

It would be very easy to simply make a list of albums, bands, shows, and moments to explain my thoughts, but I would prefer to take a bigger picture view of why, in a year of some incredible performances and stories, Joe has ended up at the top.

I stopped by Joe's dressing room after the show to say hello, and thank him for another incredible performance. I walked into the room and was greeted by keyboardist, Rick Melick, and we briefly spoke and caught up a bit. Carmine Rojas walked across the room, and gave me his usual gregarious handshake, hug, and good vibes. Next, drummer Tal Bergman joined us, and Tal is as animated in person as he is behind his kit. The veteran stickman is a consummate showman who has absolutely raised the entire production a few notches with his talents and presence. I have said it before, but I don't know that I have ever seen a single change of personnel impact a band in such a positive manner, as has Bergman's joining the Bonamassa entourage. He is a joyful being, and his enthusiasm and excitement hit you like a wave. Everyone is still very up after another two hour plus show, and you can see, you can actually feel the love for what they do, and who they are as individuals. I am not sure if they are luckier to have Joe, or Joe is luckier to have them, but I've a feeling that both are getting a hell of a good deal.

Bonamassa is sitting on a couch, looking like he's lost another ten pounds since I had last seen him power rocking his way through Indianapolis back in June with his arena rock monster, Black Country Communion. He looks up and smiles, and manages to lift himself from his comfortable seat.

"Hey Tony, how are you doing?" He asks and warmly shakes my hand. As he pulls his hand back, he takes his right hand and tenderly rubs it across the fingers of his left hand.

"Man, I'm losing my third set of callouses of the year, and I've got another month of shows to go!" He says this with a smile that indicates that while he is genuinely excited about the shows, he is also feeling the strain of a year that has seen him tour three continents with two bands, and release three full albums - one solo record, Dust Bowl, the smash second album by Black Country Communion, and his amazing collaboration with Beth Hart, Don't Explain.

For all this activity, the guy looks fantastic. That's three full length records, several tours of Europe, and several tours of the states.

He explains the fatigue as he relaxes back onto the couch, "You have to understand, I do three shows a day, at least. I have the meet and greet with the fans, the show, and then another hour after the show with more fans (I immediately thought of sound check and ratcheted the tally up to four, but kept that to myself). This has been the most fantastic year yet."

I told him that this show (November 15 in Louisville, Kentucky) was the best performance I had witnessed this year, after seeing several solo shows, and a BCC concert. His playing was phenomenal, the band played better than ever, and incredibly his singing continues to grow in leaps and bounds every time I see the guy. Honestly, I have never seen an artist grow so much over the relatively short span of a year. Every time I saw him, he had upped the ante once again.

Joe just smiled. "Wow. Thank you. Thank you very much; it's energizing to hear that when I am obviously feeling a little wiped out. We're having a great time, and I think that comes across."

If you spend much time around this young guitarist, you get used to hearing thank yous, and other words of graciousness, and thoughtfulness. For a guy who has been on top of the world for a couple of years, the strain, stress, and acclaim have not managed to wear down the man's basic decency, and dignity. He is accommodating beyond belief. He shakes hands, he takes pictures, signs guitars, gives autographs and answers questions - often risking his health and well being in terrible weather to show his appreciation to his fans.

In a time that sees crowds shrinking, record sales plummeting and entourages shrinking, Joe Bonamassa, along with his partner and longtime manager Roy Weisman have continually bucked the trends, selling out bigger shows on every tour, selling records and merchandise in a sensible fashion, and growing the Bonamassa brand year after year, in a completely DIY fashion. The Harvard School of Business need look no further for the new model of success in the music biz.

Musically, the year seemed barely be able to fit Bonamassa's prodigious output, starting with his latest solo release, Dust Bowl. His eleventh full length CD, it rocks furiously, and features guest shots by John Hiatt, Vince Gill, and BCC mate Glenn Hughes, but cameos aside it is the quality of songwriting and singing that blew me away. Produced by Kevin Shirley, it sailed up the charts, and once again had the teaming throngs of Bonamassites screaming, "Best yet!"

June saw the release of Black Country Communion 2, the sophomore effort from the supergroup that was born in Hollywood, the brainchild of producer Shirley after seeing Joe and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes jam at The House of Blues in 2009. Joined by drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, BCC has become perhaps the top classic rock band on the planet, with two superb albums and a live DVD in less than two years. The band played to sold out houses here in the States and in Europe, but left both continents drooling for more. How far this band can go is limited only by the time that Bonamassa and Hughes can dedicate to it. They amazed critics who thought the first record would be tough to beat, by absolutely topping it. This album may be the best album of either of the principle's careers. Certainly, Glenn Hughes (who wrote the lion's share of the record) has never made a more complete record, and speaking for myself, I actually prefer Bonamassa as a full on rocker, but I put that more on my tastes than any sort of empirical judgement.

On the heels of the record's release, the band hit the road for a brief warm up tour of America, here's what I said then:

"This was one of the best hard rock shows I have ever seen, and judging from the enthusiastic response from the packed house, I'm not alone in that opinion. The band still has three shows in the Eastern US before heading off to 25 shows in Europe, including that prestigious High Voltage Festival in London, England on July 24th. God bless Black Country Communion.

Live at last. I first wrote about Black Country Communion before a note had been recorded. I spoke with Glenn Hughes before a single note had been sung. I reviewed the first record first, and am now more convinced than ever that indeed BCC may well be the most exciting and important thing to happen to real rock music in the last twenty years."

Next up on the recording docket came, Don't Explain, a collaboration between the guitarist and Beth Hart. Recorded in just four days, it may well be the best soul/R&B record of the last few decades. It suffers none of the traditional two hits and a bunch of filler that always haunted albums by most soul acts, and sounds incredible from start to finish. It came from humble beginnings. In early 2010, the guitarist caught a Beth Hart show in London. "It was killer," says Bonamassa - and suggested they do a project together. 

Joe continues, "I was up late one night, I couldn't sleep.  I was playing songs on my iPod from the reissue of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, which included all the opening acts from that Stones show," he recalls. "As soon as the Ike & Tina Turner tracks came on, I just said out loud, 'Beth Hart.'  I emailed Kevin, saying, 'Let's do a soul covers record with Beth,' and he replied back, 'Actually, that's a great idea.'"

Thankfully the creative team of producer Shirley, Hart, and Bonamassa selected a set of standards, but avoided the obvious maneuver of choosing lowest common denominator super hits, and went with mostly deep catalog classics by stalwarts such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Bill Withers, and Melody Gardot. The record speaks for itself, and there is a follow up coming next year, yet another tightly scheduled season.

Countless solo shows, several tours with his supergroup friends, three albums that are as good, or better than anything released this year in their respective genres, and there you have it. To my way of thinking, any one of the three Joe Bonamassas we have on exhibit here could have contended for musician of the year, but this cat knocks off a hat trick, all the while being one of the nicest, classiest, and regular guys on the planet.

2011 has been a great year for music. Great artists like Leslie West, Glenn Hughes, Nils Lofgren, Jeff Beck - they have all done work that may be the apex of their grand careers, but Joe Bonamassa may have trumped the deck this time.

Much thanks to Joe Bonamassa, Roy Weisman, Warren Cracknell, Colin Moody, Rachel Iverson, Brett Diaz, Glenn Hughes, Carmine Rojas, Tal Bergman, Rick Melick, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, Peter Noble, and, of course, Libby Sokolowski, who brought me into the Bonamassa realm!

Very special thanks to Warren Cracknell, Joe's tour manager and sound engineer - pictured here with Libby Sokolowski!


Rick said...
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gman said...
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Anonymous said...
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LIBBY said...
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