By Alan Sculley
For the first 20 years of Joe Bonamassa’s career, one constant was always touring. Even as he maintained a schedule that saw him release 14 solo albums, even more live CDs or DVDs, as well as multiple releases with the bands Black Country Communion and Rock Candy Funk Party and collaborations with Beth Hart, among others, Bonamassa has generally played a pair of extensive U.S. tours and taken a trip through Europe every year.
So, seeing the pandemic interrupt what has been a key component in making Bonamassa arguably the world’s most popular blues-rock artist — all while self-releasing his albums rather than singing to a record label — had to turn life upside down for the talented guitarist/singer.
Bonamassa isn’t complaining too much, though.
“It was definitely the break that I needed to take that I would never have taken myself,” he says. “So there’s that. I mean, it is what it is. There was nothing anybody could have done about it. I was just fortunate to be in a position where I didn’t have to sell my car.”
That noted, Bonamassa is happy to be getting in front of concert audiences again. He did a few shows in summer 2021 in the States, followed by a fall tour. Now he’s back on the road in the States for another run of dates.
“Some people can get their point across on Instagram,” he observes. “I need a crowd, you know what I mean, not likes and shares.”
Bonamassa, who shines as a performer, should come across just fine. He has plenty of songs to work with, including material from his 2020 album “Royal Tea” (the pandemic prevented him from touring behind that album) and his new effort “Time Clocks,” which was released last October. Despite the wealth of new songs, Bonamassa said his show will cover his back catalog as well.
“We have a lot of new stuff. The whole show is new,” Bonamassa says. “So yeah, I brought back a few old songs, a couple of songs from (older) records we never played (live). I did a lot of stuff. We have a lot of alternates, too, that we haven’t gotten to. The cool thing is it keeps it fresh for us. We can change the sets every night and still hopefully achieve the same result.”
Writing and recording “Time Clocks” was one way Bonamassa passed time during the pandemic. And in some ways this project was similar to “Royal Tea,” and in other ways it was very different.
For “Royal Tea,” Bonamassa went to London to live and write the album. Then he set up shop in the legendary Abbey Road studio, where the Beatles made their albums and Pink Floyd did “Dark Side of the Moon,” to record the album.
“Well, Abbey Road is a great studio. The thing about Abbey Road is it’s just what it is,” Bonamassa says. “It’s not just the gear is great, but Ocean Way in Nashville has got a nice Neve (mixing console), too. And the thing is, all that gear and that location won’t write the songs for you. But it did change my headspace as far as what I wanted to do and how I wanted to approach music, which was the right thing to do.
“Yeah, it was a special time,” he says. “We had such a blast before we didn’t.”
As that last comment indicates, the sessions for “Royal Tea” were completed in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, dampening moods for everyone and throwing a monkey wrench into everything Bonamassa had planned for the release of the album
For “Time Clocks,” Bonamassa settled into life in New York City, hoping just as being in London brought a British rock accent to “Royal Tea,” the atmosphere of the “Big Apple” would seep into “Time Clocks.” That goal may have been compromised a bit by the pandemic, which forced Bonamassa to adjust recording plans to meet protocols that were in place at the time.
Rather than being able to bring into the studio any number of musicians and singers, Bonamassa had to limit his resources in the studio, taking what he called a bare bones approach to the project.
“It was (drummer) Anton (Fig), (bassist) Steve Mackey and myself and a couple of engineers, and my assistant, who was acting as my guitar tech, and a whole bunch of masks and just whatever,” he says. “Yeah, we only did a three-piece. It’s a small studio. Just logistically, 2019 things were easy, 2020 things were hard.”
Another person who wasn’t in the studio was Bonamassa’s longtime producer, Kevin Shirley, who was stuck in Australia at the time. Once again, they found a way to adjust, using Zoom calls so Shirley could be in touch as takes were recorded.
“Obviously, it was something that was very odd at first,” Bonamassa says. “But then we got our heads around it. It wasn’t a thing that, it was odd at first, but it was workable. But everything was odd. So what can I do?”
What Bonamassa did was make a rock album with a decidedly big and epic feel — somewhat surprising considering the rather minimal approach that needed to be taken to recording the basic tracks. “Time Clocks” features swaggering, blues-laced rock on songs like “Notches,” “Hanging on a Loser” and “The Heart That Never Waits” a chunky rocker in “Questions and Answers” and several multi-faceted songs, such as “Mind’s Eye,” which opens on a silky note and builds into an expansive rocker and the Zeppelin-ish “Curtain Call,” while Bonamassa also builds plenty of dynamics into the title track, whose understated verses have a slight country tinge that explodes into an anthemic chorus.
“I mean, it wasn’t conscious when I wrote it. It just kind of scaled that way,” Bonamassa says of the album’s feel.
Writing and recording in New York City marked a homecoming of sorts for Bonamassa, who managed to scrape by as he started his career doing recording sessions around the city. By that time, he had already made waves on the blues scene, getting tutored at age 11 by Danny Gatton and the following year opening some 20 shows for B.B. King, who was generous in his praise of the young guitarist.
He made his debut as a solo artist in 2000 with the album “A New Day Yesterday.” He’s released 13 studio albums since then, nearly all of which have topped the Billboard magazine blues album chart. Along the way, his formidable skills as a guitarist have grown more refined and his songwriting has improved considerably. The size venues he plays have also grown to the point where he commonly plays large theaters and arenas.
Producer Shirley, in press materials, has said he views “Time Clocks” as an album that could elevate Bonamassa from a blues artist to a superstar. Bonamassa isn’t concerning himself with such talk. His focus is on his music.
“I really don’t know what my future holds, personally and professionally. It’s a very difficult landscape at this point to navigate. And only I can answer that, and only I can see the true (path),” he says. “Everybody can speculate, but I actually have to go out and do the work. It’s like you’ve got to make sure your heart’s in it still.”