the Next Generation
By T.E. Mattox
here's an old French proverb that states, "the more things change,
the more they stay the same." For the life of me, I couldn't
think of a more insightful description of modern day blues, even if
I tried. One could speculate it was a similar philosophy that became
the tipping point for so many American blues musicians, who found themselves
drawn toward the European life style. Artists like Champion Jack Dupree,
Memphis Slim, Richard Ray Ferrell and Sugar Blue all spent significant
portions of their lives playing, living, and recording throughout Europe.
Yet, they all shared a common bond; the ties that bind
were buried deep in the blues.
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards on stage in Long Beach,
CA. Photo: Y. Mattox
Watching the Grammy Awards this year, I was again amazed
how artists and producers combined so many genres of music into one
massive montage of art and sound? But for me, nothing stopped the show
like the recognition and respect paid, toward a select group of originators;
an extremely talented pool of musicians, singers and performers who
set the creative standard for following generations, in blues, jazz,
country and popular music.
Today, just when you think you've got a grip on life,
the world rotates a little faster, fads return before you know they're
gone, and technology blows by us at the speed of sound. You can say
exactly the same about contemporary, popular music. So congratulations
to the Trustees of the Recording Academy, for presenting the Special
Merit Awards, and honoring the Lifetime Achievement of those who paved
One of the recipients this year was a spry, 94-year
old bluesman by the name of David 'Honeyboy' Edwards. According to this
living legend, "the blues is a feeling." And
if anyone should know, Honeyboy would. He used to run with Tommy McClennan,
Big Joe Williams, Robert Petway and even worked a number of 'good time'
houses around Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1930's with blues icon,
Robert Johnson. You can't get better, or more authentic blues credentials
than that. Edwards says, "You can start playing blues and the
feeling comes down on you, sometime. It's from the heart, the mind."
I found Honeyboy's words to be incredibly prophetic,
especially when I sat down with one of the best and the brightest blues
guitarists playing today. He's a 33-year old, upstate New Yorker by
the name of Joe Bonamassa and the 'feeling came down'
on him at a very early age.
"I met B.B.King when I was 12. I was doing shows
with him and still in school, obviously. It's been a great experience
knowing him and he's the reason why I have a career in music. There
are several people that are really responsible for it, but B.B. King
is right up there. I've been very, very lucky to have been associated
with musicians that have influenced me, but I've gotten to know them.
I did a gig with Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall. Clapton, fundamentally
influenced my playing and I found out the trend line is pretty interesting.
The more well-know and respected people are, generally the nicer they
get. And that's so true with B.B. King and so true with Eric Clapton
and it's really awesome."
Bonamassa's DVD of the 2009 Royal Albert Hall concert
captures a very special moment for Joe; on stage and trading guitar
licks with 'Slowhand' himself on the track, 'Further on up the Road.'
Bonamassa told me that particular tune was the very first song he learned
to play on the electric guitar. And performing at the Royal Albert Hall;
well, that too had special significance.
"The Albert Hall was very, very, important to
me because all my heroes have played there, from Led Zeppelin to Eric
Clapton; you know Clapton's made that place his home for many, many
years. It is a very, very special room and it was a very special place
for me, as far as being an American kid who really dug the English blues."
Bonamassa says he doesn't listen to a lot of music,
when he's not working. "I tend not to fix pipes. Plumbers tend
not to fix pipes when they're off. I tour so much." But he
adds, "I DO listen to different kinds of music, I don't listen
to blues rock all the time. I listen to a lot of jazz, country and bluegrass,
and roots Americana. Just different stuff, you know."
Joe Bonamassa live from The Royal Albert Hall.
Photo courtesy of J & R Adventures
Our conversation turned to the loss of the inventive
and exceedingly gifted guitarist, Les Paul. "I did meet Les
Paul a couple of times," he told me, but regretfully adds,
"never played with him. But he was an icon. A fantastically,
well-respected guy whose guitar playing was so genius and his innovations
on the guitar were so profoundly influential on a lot of people. Not
a lot of people in my generation really realized he was a guy! They
just know him from the guitar and all that."
For the past eight years, Bonamassa has been actively
involved with a non-profit organization called, 'Blues in the Schools.'
He broke it down mathematically for me.
"Sixty percent labor of love and forty percent
self-preservation. You've got to have a new generation of fans. Where
do you go out to find that new generation of fans? Your local high school.
Now we get them to come to the venues, like a little field trip. We
just have a really great time with it."
And would he recommend it to other players and musicians?
"I would encourage
no, I would challenge
other artists to do the same. I think they have a vested interest in
their own careers and giving of their time. A lot of artists won't do
anything without getting paid, and obviously you have to make a living,
but you also have to support the community that supports you. If you're
asking people to come out to gigs and pay money for your tickets, at
least you can do is spend a half an hour or forty minutes with their
kids in the afternoon. Give back."
I did mention that Joe Bonamassa is just now into his
early thirties, didn't I? And people say this new generation is only
in it for themselves. When we talked about some of the originators and
early bluesmen, it began to feel a lot like the game show, Twenty Questions.
Bonamassa was more than willing to play, especially when I mentioned
"I loved his passion. He died before I was born,
but some of those videos that are out there. I even found (and purchased)
a 1973 ES 355 just like the one he played. Loved that guy."
The King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson
"Robert Johnson wrote the book we all follow. The way he painted
pictures with words and lyrics in the blues is a thing that modern blues
artists lose sight of
.to have a great story behind a song is absolutely
wonderful, not that same clichéd thing that happens over and
over again. You really have to pay attention to Robert Johnson for the
grand lesson for that."
"Johnny Winter, I learned how to play slide from
61 Revisited.' A true gentleman and one of my heroes."
"Muddy Waters for me
fantastic on 'Electric Mud,' my favorite
Muddy Waters record. I like it a little edgier, a little more dangerous,
I like it more rocking. Marshal Chess did a wonderful job on 'Electric
Mud.' It's a little trippy and he got panned when it came out but it
really does stand the test of time and it just, to me is the hippest
Muddy Waters record out there."
I noted the Winter-Waters recording collaborations had
produced four critically acclaimed and award-winning albums
Coach House, San Juan Capistrano,
CA 2009. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
and the version of 'Hootchie, Cootchie
Man with Johnny doing the shout-backs in the back-ground, you can hear
his voice. Fantastic. And a little known fact, those records were recorded
in Connecticut, not in the Mississippi delta."
We spoke briefly about Clapton earlier. "My
favorite! GOD! Easy, favorite singer, songwriter and guitar player."
And B.B.? "It's a tie really between B.B. and Clapton. With B.B.;
it's the right note at the right time and the voice. It's coupling with
the guitar. Clapton it's the songs, it's the tone. Where B.B. can tell
you who he is in one note, Clapton takes two. Still, remarkable. I just
think it's a lesson for us kids, to learn to work with what we've got
and make it work. You know, those guys had one guitar and one amp
ruled the world."
You also played with Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown for
a period. "Gatemouth Brown came up to me and told my parents,"
a huge grin cracks across Bonamassa's face, "
me the ultimate compliment. He said, he's good, but he's white and he's
fat. (laughing) I was like, thirteen. Shocker! It was a shocker,
right? But you know, I look back on my life and go geez, I've been real
lucky. A lot of them aren't with us anymore, Albert Collins and Gatemouth
and Danny Gatton. I was just a lucky dude to share the stage with some
very heavy players."
Speaking of generational blues
"John Hammond Sr. or Junior?" Either/Both. "John
Hammond Jr. is a gentlemen of gentlemen, a super nice guy. Uber-talented.
He's a guy who is a direct link from the original blues to now. I can
listen to John Hammond for hours. I saw him in concert in Denver, just
brilliant. Here's a guy with such passion oozing out of him, that he
can entertain a crowd of three or four thousand with just a dobro guitar
and and a microphone. That's something you can't teach. John Hammond
Sr. as well, is legendary
.a producer and a musicologist."
"Jimmy Page is such a well-rounded musician. Brilliant. I think
he's a better acoustic guitar player than he is an electric guitar player.
His electric guitar playing is fantastic, but it overshadows the genius
that comes behind it. The guy wrote 'Stairway to Heaven', 'Since I Been
Lovin' You.' Albeit, 'Whole Lotta' Love' was somewhat borrowed from
Willie (Dixon). But again, the blues in order for it to survive
has to be interpreted by a new generation. He was the second generation
going, 'I'm going to take this core idea and turn it into something
that explodes.' You can't say enough good things about Jimmy Page."
I can honestly say the same applies when speaking about
Joe Bonamassa. You really can't say enough good things about the guy.
And his interpretation of the blues is nothing, if not electrifying.
Check out his new CD entitled, 'The Ballad of John Henry.' Or if you
like watching concerts on your big screen at home, you won't be able
to take your eyes off his 'Live from the Royal Albert Hall' DVD. It's
totally captivating and a glowing example of the next generation of
Blues. But you better do it soon, because you just know there's another
12-year old out there, patiently waiting his turn.