Joe Bonamassa is caught between the blues and a hard place. A nouveau bluesman, he favors a hybrid blues-rock sound that employs simple song structures and puts the emphasis on powerful fretwork. Such an approach was fresh back in the '60s, when British players such as John Mayall, Jeff Beck and Peter Green co-opted American blues and applied a heavier edge to it -- but it's not exactly innovative today. Yet the guitarist brazenly asserts -- perhaps oblivious to the incongruency of the sentiment -- that unless the blues advances stylistically, its days are numbered.
Westword: You were only four, but you started playing guitar when bands like Van Halen dominated the airwaves. Why play the blues?
Joe Bonamassa: I never really liked pop music. I actually started playing classical until I was eight. I was always that little fat white kid who could play classical guitar. Then the blues just hit me. It was just one of those things where I just couldn't live without it.
Now you're part of the new generation of bluesmen, like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. There aren't many others, though. Is the blues a dying art?
I get in trouble for this point more than anything in my entire existence, but I will say that the blues, if it stays with the status quo, and the people doing the same old thing are rewarded over and over, that ultimately it will die off. I used to say it will be gone in twenty years, but if something is not done with the younger generation very, very soon, it's gone in five to ten years.
Sounds like a grim assessment.
There are traditional blues guys, and guys like me that the purists call "wankers." People go to concerts to be entertained. If people are not going to the more traditional blues shows, then people are not being entertained. If you've heard one blues guy, then you've heard them all; that's the problem. What pains me the most is that there are people doing something different, but the older guys don't trust the younger guys. They're writing their own check, and it's about to bounce.
Where does that leave you?
I've carved out my niche. I've been able to increase my audience, as opposed to a decrease for traditional blues artists. But the records that I make are not completely blues; they're blues-oriented. My heroes are the guys whose heroes were Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. I like the sophistication of the English blues more. It's more exciting, and that's why I gravitated to that. I love Robert Johnson as much as anyone, but I cannot sit through fifteen songs -- it gets a little boring. I say that and people think I'm, like, the Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse. But I'd rather hear Clapton play "Crossroads" than Robert Johnson any day.
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