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.
"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.
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."
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."
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 Amazon.com charts, and once again had the teaming throngs of Bonamassites screaming, "Best yet!"
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:
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.
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.
Very special thanks to Warren Cracknell, Joe's tour manager and sound engineer - pictured here with Libby Sokolowski!