Above Average Joe

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Joe Bonamassa first picked up a guitar at 4 and he was playing with B.B. King at 12.

But don’t call him a child prodigy.

Bonamassa, 39, said there was nothing magical about how or why he got good.

“I always kept to myself,” he said. “Truth be told, I still do. All I ever do is practice. That hasn’t changed. I never thought I had anything special. I just worked hard and tried to make the best music I could. Nothing has changed.”

Bonamassa performs Dec. 2 at the Embassy Theatre.

His reputation is that of an indefatigable and dauntless promoter of the Bonamassa brand and of blues music in general.

Bonamassa has never been afraid to buck whatever the conventional wisdom is at any given moment.

In 2006, he grew tired of playing the small clubs, and of promoters and venue managers who didn’t see him expanding beyond the small clubs.

So he rented out two theaters with his own money: The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville and the Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.

Bonamassa stoically reasoned at the time that if he only drew a few hundred concertgoers instead of a thousand, then he’d know it wasn’t time to step things up after all.

“If we had only drawn 200 or 300 people, we would have been back at Piere’s at the end of the day,” he said.

But Bonamassa ended up drawing 1300 or 1400 attendees locally.

“Fort Wayne has always been good to us,” he said. “We rented out the theater because we thought we could do a bigger venue and nobody wanted to take a chance on us. I mean, how do you get to those nice places if nobody is willing to take a chance on you? The way to do it is to take a chance on yourself.”

The 2006 theater experiment became the Bonamassa touring model: a strategy Bonamassa refers to as “the four wall.” The four wall concept means Bonamassa continues to rent theaters himself and maximize profits by cutting out middlemen.

Given Bonamassa’s courage and creativity, it should come as a surprise to no one to learn that the bluesman formed his own label long before it was clear to everyone that the music industry as it had been known for decades had collapsed.

Bonamassa had worked with a number of established labels before launching J&R Adventures in 2003 and his experiences had been less than satisfying.

“The pressure is that you have to sell units,” he said. “To sell units, you actually have to find an audience. And a lot of times, a label will give you really bad advice on how to find that audience.”

It soon became clear to Bonamassa that the traditional model was not going to work for him.

“My manager of 25 years and I, we decided we needed to something really different and it’s been great,” he said. “To be able to set your own hours and make your own rules and control the creativity of it all – that’s really valuable.”

Bonamassa said most musicians have since come to understand that there’s no money in pursuing a career the traditional way.

Musicians today have to be savvier about everything their music touches, he said.

“A lot people forget the business aspect of the business,” Bonamassa said. “It’s really important that you learn all sides of the business. Just because you know how to make a plate of spaghetti doesn’t mean you know how to run an Italian restaurant.”

A few years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to success as a professional musician was illegal downloads. Now it’s streaming.

Bonamassa doesn’t see much difference between the two.

“How to make something illegal, legal? You just refer to it by a different name,” he said.

The streaming of recorded music doesn’t bother Bonamassa. Streaming live concerts, however, strikes him as counterintuitive.

“Some artists think streaming concerts is the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “Ultimately, they find out that they don’t have enough money to get two of the three beans that Jack was purchasing.”

Artists like Bonamassa pride themselves on giving live performances that can’t be reproduced or duplicated successfully anywhere else in any other way.

If you want the best of Bonamassa, you have to buy a ticket.

Even as Bonamassa was devising new ways to succeed, he also devised a new way to pay it forward.

He launched the Keep the Blues Alive Foundation, which helps raise awareness about the blues genre and music in general.

“It’s a way to give new instruments and money to schools that need resources,” he said. “It’s a way for me to give back to the fans that have given to me, to give back to their kids.”

 

 

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Derek Keeps On Trucking

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If you want to quickly understand why Derek Trucks is widely considered to be one of the best blues guitarists in the world, seek out a YouTube video of a BB King concert from 2012.

At one point in the show, King, John Mayer and Derek Trucks are performing a Jesse Blevin song that came to be associated with King called “Guess Who?” and King asks Trucks to do a solo.

What ensues is nothing less than magical. Mayer, no slouch himself in the guitar department, gawps at Trucks in disbelief.

The world of electric bluesman and blues rockers is full of shredders, but there aren’t many guys who can make a guitar gently weep like Trucks can.

His solo is a poem in notes. It is more soliloquy than solo.

Afterward, King says, “That’s about as good as I have ever heard it.” And Trucks looks genuinely embarrassed by the praise.

Trucks will perform with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the group he formed in 2010 with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, at the Embassy Theatre on Nov. 17.

Trucks had an unusual childhood. He picked up his first guitar for $5 at a garage sale when he was nine, which is not an uncommon thing for an American kid to do. By the time he turned 12, he’d performed with music legends like Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy, which is an utterly uncommon thing for an American kid to have done.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” he said in a phone interview. “I have kids now who are the age I was when I was traveling on the road.”

Trucks said he never craved rock star adulation so the mere act of taking a stage wasn’t enough to swell his head or scare him stiff. He said he just saw playing guitar as a welcome challenge at that age, very much on par with playing Little League baseball.

The joy he got from playing as a kid was unencumbered by adult responsibilities and ramifications.

“When you get in the zone playing sports and music, there’s a thing that happens where everything slows down,” he said. “It’s a little like later on when you take a psychedelic drug for the first time. But when you’re a kid, it’s a very pure thing that happens and you start looking for it more and more.”

Trucks’ father was (and still is) a music aficionado who took his young son to rock, blues and jazz shows.

He was a huge fan of Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers, so one can only imagine what a thrill it was for him to see his son perform with both those classic acts.

“It was all pretty surreal,” Trucks said. “I think I’d been on the road for a decade when I got the call to join Allman Brothers. I had a record out. At that point, I think I figured that the band was winding down and the guitar chair was never going to open up again. So it came out of left field and was certainly a major honor. I had no idea it would last 15 years.

“I don’t really believe in the preordained script but this was kind of part of it,” he said.

It was during Trucks’ first tour with the Allmans that he met his future wife. Tedeschi, a rising star on the blues scene at the time, was an opening act throughout the tour.

“I always joked with the guys in my solo band at the time,” he said. “I’d just gotten out of a relationship and I was like, ‘It’s kind of fun being a single guy on the road.’ I remember telling them, ‘Unless I find a woman with a CD collection that has John Coltrane, Howlin’ Wolf and Mahalia Jackson in it, I’m just going to hang back a while.’

“And then, when I met Susan, I called Yonrico (Scott), our drummer, and I said, ‘I think I stepped in it,’” Trucks recalled.

Members of the Allmans and of Tedeschi’s band picked up on the future couple’s chemistry and musical compatibility right away, he said.

“They were like, ‘We don’t care if you date, but you’ve got to have at least one child,’” Trucks said.

The couple married in 2001, had a son a year later and a daughter two years after that.

Trucks said they knew they would collaborate some day but they wanted to wait for the right moment.

“Her career was taking off,” he said. “I think not long after I met her, her first record went gold and she was up for Best New Artist. Things went from 0 to 60 with her. I was working with my solo group and the Allmans and things were intense and great. So there was this sense for the first eight years: ‘Your thing is your thing and mine is mine. Let’s not cross-pollinate too much.’”

But after their family had been established for a while, they started talking about teaming up professionally.

In the days when they had two separate bands, they arranged their tour schedules so one parent was always home.

That aspect of things became more challenging after they joined musical forces.

“We’re very fortunate,” Trucks said. “My parents live not too far from us, my brother and his wife live right down the road. We all live on the same street now. Now when we leave, my mom kind of moves in. And we don’t leave for any extended period of time when the kids aren’t out of school. We have the small village thing working for us. I don’t know if we would be able to do it otherwise.”

Doing a lot of shows is imperative for the large band in these economic times. The Tedeschi Trucks Band has swelled to 12 members, including three singers and a horn section.

“It’s an evolving thing,” he said. “When we first put band together, we definitely had a horn section in mind. But you can’t bring 10 people on the road right out of the gate.”

The band always grows after it tries something new and everyone realizes they can’t live without it, Trucks said.

“You don’t go backwards,” he said. “You just keep finding a way to make it work.”

There are no sidemen in the band, Trucks said. Every member is a virtuoso and a visionary.

“Really everyone in the band has done or could do their own thing,” he said. “There are no pick-up musicians. With that, you’re getting a world of experience; you’re getting big personalities.”

The band performs 200 shows a year because Trucks and Tedeschi want everyone to be financially comfortable.

“It’s not want you need to personally get by,” Trucks said. “It’s what the band and the crew need to get by. It sure would be nice to have a month or two of not touring at this period. But we’re like, ‘Maybe next year.’”

Trucks said it’s tough being away from home so much and it’s tough feeling like you’re always in motion but it’s “a good hang.”

“Musically it just gets better the more you do it,” he said, “when you’re actively pushing it forward and trying new things. The band is better because of it. I don’t feel like at any point with this band that we play too much and the inspiration goes away. It’s the opposite.”

Trucks said the band “just keeps feeling this magic kind of bubbling more and more.”

“It is the nature of what we do,” he said. “The more you do it, the better it’s going to get.”