In Advance of Upcoming State Theatre Show, Joe Bonamassa Talks About Keeping the Blues Alive

Singer-guitarist just released a live album and DVD recorded at Red Rocks

click to enlarge In Advance of Upcoming State Theatre Show, Joe Bonamassa Talks About Keeping the Blues Alive
Photo by Jenise Jensen

At only 12 years old, blues singer-guitarist Joe Bonamassa famously opened several dates for blues icon B.B. King. His career continued to escalate after that, and Bonamassa now plays more than 200 shows each year, selling out some of the world’s biggest venues and appearing alongside artists like Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills and Peter Frampton.

He’s released 40 albums to date, and his non-profit Keeping the Blues Alive supports music education and artists in need. It's awarded more than $1 million and reached more than 74,000 students.

Bonamassa is also the founder of J&R Adventures, a 360-degree management and concert promotion company that thrived during an uncertain era, as well as KTBA Records, an independent label through which he's produced dozens of albums. His Fueling Musicians Program provided cash payments to touring musicians in need of support following the pandemic shutdowns.

In a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home, Joe Bonamassa spoke about his latest studio album, Time Clocks, his forthcoming live album, Tales of Time, and his upcoming concert that takes place on Feb.17 at the State Theatre.

You play Cleveland on the regular. Do you remember your first-ever gig here?
The first gig in the early ’90s was when I was in a band on EMI Records called Bloodline. We had a bit of radio going in Cleveland, and we played the Agora Ballroom. I remember that was one of the first times. I was 14. Then, when I started my solo career, we played the Beachland Tavern and when we sold more tickets than the Tavern could hold, they moved us to the Ballroom, and we played plenty of shows there. We played about a dozen shows there. Then, we moved to House of Blues and played one show there. Then, we moved to the theaters. In my lifetime, I’ve probably played 30 shows in Cleveland. In some ways, I miss the adventure of showing up and having a PA and setting up an amp and going, but we have three semi-trucks full of gear now. It’s been a great trajectory, and Ohio has always been nice to me. I remember doing shows in Akron and Youngstown and even Pomeroy — just good memories.

I don’t think it’s a concept album, but your latest studio album, Time Clocks, is very evocative and even philosophical. When did the songs begin to come together?
I started writing many of them at the end of 2020. I had produced bunch of records in 2020 and wrote songs for other records. I wrote a bunch of Eric Gales’s record, which is up for a Grammy on Sunday, and a bunch of songs for Jimmy Hall. I thought maybe I tapped the well too much. I had to do a record my own. My friend Dean Hall came out, and I just started writing them and wrote them mostly in New York. We just wrote songs for over a week and recorded in New York. It was interesting way of recording because our producer was stuck in Australia. He would do a Zoom call, and his studio could get the tracks from the studio in New York within a second. That’s how we made the record.

“Curtain Call” is so crazy. What instruments are on that tune? There is so much going on, I couldn’t put it all together.
Dude, I wish I knew. That’s our producer. He took did that back to Australia. The record was mixed and mastered there, and there it is.

“Notches” is such a hard rocking song. Talk about its origins.
I wrote that song with my friend Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke. Charlie came up with the line about the “notches.” I thought that was killer, and we just took it from there.

What was it like to make the live concert film and album that you will release in April?
It was challenging. The interesting thing about the DVD, and this is where reality and art don’t necessarily coalesce, is that if you do a show at Red Rocks in the summer, it doesn’t get dark until about 10 p.m. But we always go on at 8. You can set your clock to that. We were carrying around an extra semi-truck with a million dollar big screen. As it got closer to the gig, I mentioned to management that we will blow off musical fireworks during the daylight. We said we wanted to play the hits first and then do the theme show. We had already played an hour and frontloaded the show and then took a pause, and we started the gig that you see on the DVD. There’s some bonus footage of the stuff we did during the daylight from 8 to 9. It’s kind of in reverse.

What made you pick “The Loyal Kind” as the first single.
I wish I could tell you I was involved in picking it. The first time I realized it was the first single was when my father called me and said it came out great. I didn’t know what came out great.

That guitar solo kills. You must be happy with that.
I’m happy with the whole thing. I really feel proud of the work. I’m deep into my career. There’s not a lot of things I haven’t done. This was one of our more adventurous outings. I’m thrilled with the result. Every once in a while when I doubt myself, I see that I can still pull it off.

When did you start Keeping the Blues Alive and what has it been like to keep it going?
That’s our charity, and we have given away more than a million dollars to artists and schools. It’s great. It’s one of the things that I’m most of proud of. I’ve helped hundreds of artists get through the pandemic. Our stimulus checks were $1500. We beat the government by $300. It’s hard enough to make a living as a musician in normal times. And then, to have a complete shutdown is just bad.

Talk about what your live show here will be like?
We’ll play some Time Clocks stuff and some of the hits — at least they’re hits in my world. I have a second volume of Blues Deluxe coming out to mark the album's 20th anniversary, and I might play some songs from that. Rehearsals start next week, and I still have to get my head around it a little bit.
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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