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Home » Rock n Rolla

The world’s most inconspicuous rock star

Submitted by on September 1, 2011 – 12:32 amNo Comment

It’s an unseasonably warm spring day and the temperature is tipping to near double digits when I meet Joe Bonamassa outside his tour bus in the rear parking lot of the Ottawa Civic Centre on a Friday afternoon in early April.

He greets me wearing black jeans, Nike kicks and a nondescript zip-up sweater pulled over a blank black t-shirt. He looks like he works retail at an independent sports store.

I shake his hand and pass him a mickey of Crown Royal whiskey. “The only place in the world they make that stuff is in Gimli, a town of 6,000 on the shores of Lake Winnipeg,” I inform him as he takes the bottle and passes it to his manager. “The band’ll enjoy that.”

As we walk to his tour bus, he moves not uncomfortably, but awkwardly, with a barely-noticeable hunchback and an odd side-step that gives him the appearance of having two left feet.

When we embark, the bus smells of fresh Canadian grass, but something tells me it’s the band, not the man, blazing it up.

‘He’s like a less attractive Mayer,’ I think as we take a seat in the tail of his posh tour bus. He sits with his back to me and his eyes fixed on an overhead television broadcasting a country music countdown from “back home.” It looks as though he’s tuning in via satellite but I start the interview anyway.

He’s quick at the tongue like a politician with years of media training – answering questions mid-sentence as if he already knows not only what you will ask, but the type of response you’re after.

He has a cocky modesty that seems as much earned as learned. It makes it easy (and I imagine sometimes difficult) to get on with him. ‘Everything but his look is rock and roll,’ I realize halfway through our chat, ‘He may be the most inconspicuous virtuoso on the planet.’

While he enjoys the comfort of the limelight only slightly more than the banal glow of a streetlight, the New Hartford, NY, native is by every account a legend.

Known to his contemporaries as one of the best blues guitar players on the planet, Bonamassa was ripping Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan licks note for note by age seven. Music is in his blood. His parents owned and ran a guitar shop in his hometown and comments like “it takes no time to blast over a one, four, five,” roll off his tongue as if anyone in earshot would catch the reference.

At the time of our conversation, three of Bonamassa’s albums controlled 30 percent of the Billboard blues charts; his latest album, Dust Bowl, debuted at #1 on Billboard and was his third record in a row to do so; he is tied with B.B. King for most #1 blues albums – nine – on Billboard. He sells 300,000 tickets a year, played over 300 gigs in 2010 and a year earlier had Eric Clapton join him on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England.

Yet mainstream success of the variety attained by many of his friends – Clapton and John Mayer to name two – has eluded Bonamassa like a smart car does a stray dog on a suburban street. His name has not once been printed in Rolling Stone. Nor has he been nominated for any award, less a reader’s choice from Guitar Player magazine.

But, though his name remains relatively unknown, Bonamassa says he prefers the shadows over the spotlight.

“It’s a bit strange. I have not even been nominated for Miss Congenialty,” he jokes. “[But] I know people who have 15 Grammys and can’t sell 200 tickets. I’d rather have zero Grammys and be able to go out and work.

“I don’t like mainstream. I don’t like corporate. I don’t like it at all. And I don’t like the fake hype fix around it. To me it’s not real – it’s people with marketing degrees and a machine… dressing these kids up in Converse and calling them indie bands.

“Any time the corporate or mainstream thing comes up, not only do I run from it, I actually will throw stones while I’m running.”

Bonamassa, who was taught by some of the greats, including B.B. King, believes because of the mentorship he received from older players as a youngster, it is particularly important to pass on the proverbial six-string to the next generation. Having participated in the Blues Foundation’s “Blues in the Schools” program for 10 years and running, he says it’s necessary to give back the community that allows him to make his living.

“At first, trying to convince a 20-something-year-old who just played the night before to get up at seven o’clock in the morning to go talk to some kids about blues was a tough sell,” he admits. “All of a sudden, three or four years ago, I started seeing these kids show up at gigs with their families [saying], ‘I saw you back in 2002 when you came to my 8th Grade class.’ It was all worth it, it all made sense.”

While there’s been much speculation and quiet chatter that Dust Bowl could be the album that brings mainstream success the way of the 34-year-old New Yorker, the 20-year veteran makes it clear that’s the last thing he’s interested in.

“When they say ‘the future of the blues, new king of the blues,’ I can also show them the contrary, where they think I’m the anti-Christ and the guy who’s ruining the genre. I think that the truth lies somewhere in between.

“Truth be told, I’ve spent my whole career not paying attention to what other people said or wrote and now that they write nice thing, I [still] try not to pay attention.”

Rémi L. Roy

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