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Blues Man Joe Bonamassa, Real-Life Guitar Hero

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Blues Man Joe Bonamassa, Real-Life Guitar Hero

Music Interviews

Blues Man Joe Bonamassa, Real-Life Guitar Hero

Blues Man Joe Bonamassa, Real-Life Guitar Hero

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120646702/120647324" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Blues musician Joe Bonamassa started playing with B.B. King when he was 12. He's performed on stage with Eric Clapton and averages about 200 shows per year. His new DVD is called Joe Bonamassa, Live From the Royal Albert Hall. Host Scott Simon speaks with Bonamassa about living with the blues and how he got his nickname, "Smokin' Joe."

(Soundbite of music)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

So what's it's like to be 12 and going on tour with B.B. King?

Mr. JOE BONAMASSA (Guitarist): Well, I'll tell you what, Scott, it beats a paper route by a long shot. I'll tell you that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We're talking to Joe Bonamassa, Smoking Joe Bonamassa, a real-life guitar hero. He has 200 shows a year and has just released a DVD of his May 2009 appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Joe Bonamassa joins us - of course he's on tour - from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BONAMASSA: No problem.

SIMON: How does a 12-year-old from Utica, New York wind up playing with B.B. King on tour?

Mr. BONAMASSA: Well, when you're 12 and, you know, slightly overweight and -for lack of a better word - white, and you're playing blues, you get a lot of press. And there was this newspaper article about this kid from Utica - which, you know, here I am talking about myself in the third person, but for this story it makes sense - you know, about this kid from Utica, New York playing blues.

And we were playing all, like, the thruway circuit. You know, people from Upstate New York will understand that - I-90, the thruway. And you know, a promoter called us and said, hey, would you like to open up for B.B. King? And my mother at the time was my booking agent. And she was like, as long as it's on a Friday or Saturday, 'cause he's in seventh grade. You know, and that was it.

And I got to play with him, May 24, 1990 - basically 20 years ago.

SIMON: Let's fast forward that couple of decades. And you're playing with Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall.

(Soundbite of song, "Further On Up the Road")

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Musician): (Singing) Gotta reap just what you sow, that old saying is true. You gotta reap just what you sow�

Mr. BONAMASSA: How cool is that? You know, very rarely can you catch a man peaking in life on film. And basically for that six minutes that "Further On Up the Road" lasted at the Albert Hall with Eric Clapton, you know, to my right -you basically saw the peak of my life. And it's all pretty much downhill from there.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Over the past couple of generations there have been so many talented British blues musicians who have always, in my experience, been scrupulous about paying homage to the great Chicago blues artists and New Orleans blues artists. Can we fairly say, though, that after two generations they got their own blues?

Mr. BONAMASSA: You know, the blues, the way it's interpreted, is always a product of your environment, and so it's almost like food. You know, it's like you use the ingredients and you use your life experiences that you have. So the English guys are writing about growing up in Manchester and Birmingham, you know, and London.

And to me it was a bit more rock and it was a bit more exciting. And when you're eight or nine and have a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp - thank you, dad - and you figure out by turning the amp up to 10 and playing an E chord you can make it sound like Paul Kossov(ph) or, you know, Eric Clapton, you're going, this is pretty cool.

SIMON: Did I get this right? I read that you didn't start writing the songs for this new release until two weeks before�

Mr. BONAMASSA: Yeah.

SIMON: �you began recording it.

Mr. BONAMASSA: Yeah, it's almost like the homework thing, right? You got that homework ready? Yeah, it's fantastic. Oh, you're going to love it.

SIMON: I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking about it.

Mr. BONAMASSA: When am I going to hear some songs? Like, yeah, dude - bad Internet. I can't send you the tracks yet. I work well under pressure. And quite frankly, I mean, the touring schedule is so rigorous, you have very little time for yourself, very little time for reflection, and very little time to come up with, frankly, something new.

SIMON: Why do they call you Smokin' Joe? I'm not sure I've heard that story.

Mr. BONAMASSA: Well, that was a long time ago. There was a harmonica player in upstate New York that said, hey, there's the little kid, we're going to call him Smokin' Joe. This was back when you could, like, smoke in the bars, you know? I said, you know, maybe Joe Frazier would have an issue with this, you know, so we kind of dropped�

SIMON: You'd want to stay on his good side, yes.

Mr. BONAMASSA: I'm certain his left jab is still better than mine will every be, you know? So it was just because I got the reputation for crashing pub gigs in upstate New York and all the local guitar players would go, oh God, you know, don't follow kids or animals, and here he comes.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: But I bet it stuck because of the quality of your playing though.

Mr. BONAMASSA: Well, you know what, I think I barely got by in those days. I mean, I think I was good enough to be considered a good guitar player for any age, but barely. And you know, 'cause when you're a kid, you know, you want people to go, wow, he's just a good musician or a good, you know, singer or whatever. You know, you don't want to, like, people to go, well, he's good for his age. That's the one thing that kind of denotes, when they use the P word, you know, which I always kind of shied away of it - you know, what's it like being a prodigy? I go, I don't know. Ask Mozart.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You've got your guitar there and I understand you're going to play something.

Mr. BONAMASSA: I will. I'm going to play the song that Eric Clapton played with me in May. This is "Further On Up the Road."

(Soundbite of song, "Further On Up the Road")

Mr. BONAMASSA: (Singing) Further on up the road, someone gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, someone gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, baby, wait and see. You got me laughing, pretty baby. Some day you're gonna be crying. You got me laughing, pretty baby. Some day you're gonna be crying. Further on up the road, you found out I wasn't lying.

Further on up the road, someone gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, someone gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, baby, wait and see. You got me laughing, pretty babe. Some day you're gonna be crying. You got me laughing, pretty baby. Some day you're gonna be crying. Further on up the road, you found out I wasn't lying.

Mr. BONAMASSA: There you go.

SIMON: Joe?

Mr. BONAMASSA: Yes.

SIMON: I'm going to do something I rarely do in these remote studio sessions.

(Soundbite of clapping)

SIMON: I'm going to clap. That was just great.

Mr. BONAMASSA: Thank you, thank you very much. I'm really honored to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Smokin' Joe Bonamassa. He's got a new DVD out - "Live from the Royal Albert Hall." He joined us from NPR West. And to hear more smoking blues, you can go to NPRMusic - all one word - dot-org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Live from the Royal Albert Hall [2 Disc]
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Joe Bonamassa
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Released
2009

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Ballad of John Henry
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