Season 2 Artists

Season 2 Artists

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

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On his last two studio albums, Jack Johnson pushed into darker territory and delved deeper into electric guitar work than ever before in his music career. Now, with his sixth studio album From Here To Now To You, the Hawaii-based singer-songwriter reclaims his role as a maestro of surf folk-rock while expanding and strengthening his songwriting craft. Written entirely on acoustic guitar and brought to life with lush yet rustic instrumentation, From Here To Now To You finds Johnson refining his gift for storytelling that’s both refreshingly down-to-earth and enlightening.

Recorded in Hawaii at Johnson’s own Mango Tree Studio, From Here To Now To You marks a reunion with Mario Caldato, Jr. (the producer of Johnson’s biggest-selling release, 2005’s In Between Dreams, as well as albums by the Beastie Boys, Super Furry Animals, and Seu Jorge) and Ben Harper (the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who played slide guitar on Johnson’s first-ever single “Flake”). Also featuring Johnson’s longtime band members Adam Topol, Merlo Podlewski, and Zach Gill, From Here To Now To You channels the warm intimacy of those collaborations into songs whose seeming simplicity continually unfolds into rich layers of emotion.

Primarily inspired by Johnson’s family, From Here To Now To You opens with “I Got You” (a heart-on-sleeve, whistling-accented ode to his wife Kim) and closes with “Home” (a tribute to the Johnson abode that sets its images of overgrown grass and waxing moons to gorgeously cascading guitars). An earnest yet playful serenade to his daughter, “You Remind Me Of You” pairs mellowed-out scat-singing with sweetly self-effacing lyrics (“Daddy made you messy/And your mama made you neat”). And on “Never Fade,” Johnson recounts the first time meeting his wife with a romantic reflectiveness that’s tender and thoughtful (“You see I knew right then/That this could last so long/I went home that night/I wrote my first love song”).

Elsewhere on From Here To Now To You, Johnson spins stories that embody everything from youthful ambition to weary concern for the future of the planet. On “Washing Dishes,” for instance, he assumes the part of a sure-footed dreamer (“I’ve been washing dishes/Singing from the bottom/But one day I’ll be running this place/And one day I could take you away”), while the wistful and whimsical “Tape Deck” lets the listener in on Johnson’s misadventures in starting up his first rock band (“And all of the girls will be in the front row/But in the end we just chickened out/Because we can’t sing, we can only shout”). Changing gears on the dusky, British-folk-influenced “Ones and Zeros,” Johnson delivers a quietly cautionary message about the environment and our ever-growing techno-obsessions (“Into a world where boys and girls/Are holding hand-held devices/While they’re eating and they’re sleeping/And they’re dreaming of the prices”). Rounding out From Here To Now To You are reveries like “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say” (a lilting love song to the cosmos) and “Shot Reverse Shot” (a handclap-backed piece of pop built on surrealistic lyrics about trick photography and rock-paper-scissors games).

Although Johnson’s golden vocals and graceful acoustic-guitar work form the heart of From Here To Now To You, the album achieves intricate textures by weaving in eclectic instruments like ukulele, melodica, bass kalimba, glockenspiel, and Wurlitzer piano. And on “Change,” Ben Harper wields his Weissenborn slide guitar to intensify the melancholy in Johnson’s smooth and ambling tale of the woes and wonders of aging. From song to song, From Here To Now To You radiates an easy, joyful energy that Johnson attributes in major part to his musical kinship and chemistry with Caldato (a Brazil-born part-time Rio resident who shares Johnson’s lifelong passion for island reggae).

Largely informed by his identity as an island boy, From Here To Now To You also finds Johnson fully embracing his urge to channel his love of his homeland into his songwriting. Written mainly on his front porch—and recorded at his oceanside studio with nightly sunset breaks for swimming and surfing— From Here To Now To You portrays Hawaii’s North Shore as a rootsy paradise that’s supremely peaceful. And with the unaffected ease of his melodies, Johnson—who’s headed up a Hawaii-focused nonprofit environmental education organization with his wife for the past decade—re-creates that sense of blissed-out serenity all throughout From Here To Now To You.

“To The Sea was an in-between state, but this new album feels like a return home,” notes Johnson. While 2010’s To The Sea and 2008’s Sleep Through The Static both saw Johnson meditating on the loss of loved ones (his father and cousin, respectively), From Here To Now To You bears a much brighter mood without sacrificing emotional complexity or—of particular import to Johnson—relatability for the listener. “Even though these songs are very personal to me, personal enough that they’re real and have a truth to them, they’re also broad enough that people can apply them to their own lives,” he points out. And because he infuses those songs with such grace and gratitude, Johnson ultimately performs the singular feat of not only aligning himself with his listeners—but also elevating and inspiring them simply through his generosity as a storyteller.

Having sold more than 19 million albums since his 2001 debut Brushfire Fairytales, Johnson has more than proven his natural penchant for creating a connection with his audience over the years. But with From Here To Now To You, Johnson reaches a level of universality that turns each track into something of a boundless gift. “The trick for me is always in finding this balance,” says Johnson, who’s now gearing up to tour North America and Europe this fall. “I’ll write a song then figure out if I’m comfortable sharing it with the world. And the reason I usually am is that I’m assuming people are throwing themselves into the story—making themselves the x and the y of the equation. In the end, they’re putting their own story in there.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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Preservation Hall was founded in 1961 to promote traditional New Orleans jazz in all its authenticity. Legendary players like George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett and Kid Thomas Valentine, all rooted in the formative years jazz, were its original stars. That generation is long gone now, yet the hall is still in business and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to tour the world.

Therein lies a paradox: how does an institution based on an early 20th century musical culture prosper in the 21st? When asked that question on the occasion of the Hall’s 50th anniversary, Creative Director Ben Jaffe had a ready answer: “This anniversary is about the next fifty years.”

For Jaffe, 41, this not just a business question: he’s carrying on a family tradition started by his parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who were instrumental in founding the Hall and turning it into an internationally known cultural icon. When Ben took over the operation in 1995, he faced the challenge of keeping it going with a dwindling band of veteran musicians and an aging audience base. His solution has been to inject the touring band with new blood, bringing in some younger players with fresh musical ideas and to form collaborations with groups and musicians from outside the New Orleans tradition. In recent years, the PHJB has performed and recorded with a wide array of musicians, ranging from groups like My Morning Jacket, Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger, and the Del McCoury Bluegrass Band. The culmination of this collaborative effort was the sellout 50th anniversary concert that the PHJB hosted at Carnegie Hall in January 2012.

This album breaks new ground for Ben and the PHJB: it’s the first time in the history of the band that it has recorded an album made up of entirely original material—most of it composed by Jaffe and members of his group. The album was co-produced by Ben Jaffe and Jim James, leader of My Morning Jacket, and encouraged by songwriters Paul Williams, Dan Wilson and Chris Stapleton, who co-wrote three of the titles with the band. Band members Charlie Gabriel, Rickie Monie, and Clint Maedgen also pitched in on some of the compositions.

Once the material was written and rehearsed, Jim James and his sound engineer Kevin Ratterman drove down from Louisville with a van full of equipment and set it up among the splintery wooden benches and smoky paintings in Preservation Hall. That recording session produced the eleven tracks on this historic album.

Though it was not unheard of in the past for Preservation Hall musicians to compose some of the music they performed—drummer Paul Barbarin wrote “Bourbon Street Parade” and clarinetist George Lewis wrote “Burgundy Street Blues,” for example—this album marks the first time that a substantial body of new music was created by the band and entered the Preservation Hall repertoire. This constitutes a rich lode of fresh material not only for the current members of the touring PHJB, but also for other musicians who play at the hall and may be inspired to pick up on some of these songs. In the heyday of the Jazz Age, New Orleans musicians learned new tunes all the time by listening to what their peers were doing in the dance halls and on their recordings. One of the aims of this album is to stimulate that kind of cross-pollination among today’s New Orleans jazzmen.

Though some traditional jazz purists may be surprised, the broader public will hopefully find this music engaging, enthralling—and irresistibly danceable. No one who hears Jaffe’s funky tuba lines, Joe Lastie’s backbeat drumming and the band’s groove on tunes like “The Darker it Gets” could doubt the group’s traditional New Orleans roots.

On the other hand, Clint Maedgen’s boozy “August Nights,” with it’s haunting tenor sax riffs and sultry muted trumpet work by Mark Braud, is a Tom Waits-like hymn to urban despair that would be at home on any barroom jukebox in the world. The punchy horn-section riffs on “Come With Me” and “That’s It” have a bite and exuberance that recall the Ellington big band sound. “I Think I Love You,” is a pop tune with a Caribbean beat and a smooth, sexy vocal by 80-year-old reedman Charlie Gabriel (with Jim James singing backup).

In addition to Gabriel, Ronell Johnson (“Dear Lord Give Me the Strength,” “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong”) and Fred Lonzo (“Rattlin’ Bones”) turn in strong vocal performances that underscore the wide variety of talent this band embraces.

In short, “That’s It” is an eclectic album that draws on the collective experience of players nurtured in the New Orleans tradition but determined to build something fresh and exciting on that foundation. It marks an important milestone in Jaffe’s crusade to carry forward the Hall’s original mission while making it relevant to today’s audiences. For his part, co-producer Jim James is convinced that the PHJB has a future as vibrant as its past: “The music will speak forever,” he says. “Will people stop listening to Beethoven? Will people stop listening to Bob Dylan? Will people stop listening to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?”

Not if Ben Jaffe can help it. “My parents were never preservationists in any strict sense,” he says. “They simply presented the music the way the old jazzmen wanted to play it. This is the music we want to play today. We’ll continue to do the old standards, along with new material that allows us to be creative and relevant. With this album, I wanted to do something that would challenge us and make us proud.” That’s it.

Tom Sancton, author of Song For My Fathers

Zakk Wylde & the Les Paul Trio

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Quick, name the guitarist whose previous albums have sold more than Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and AC/DC combined. Hint: It’s not Zakk Wylde.

“Let’s just tell everyone that anyway,” says the guitarist, before launching into a long conversation about other small white lies he’d like stated as fact (including his bench press and a certain anatomy size).

Zakk’s one funny dude, but take the guy seriously: he’s also a phenomenally successful musician and a certified metal deity (see below). For over 20 years he served as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, a collaboration that produced a string of multi-platinum albums, including Osbourne’s biggest selling album No More Tears (Wylde wrote all of the music) and Ozzmosis. He has won nearly every guitar award imaginable, and is a major influence on a new battalion of rock guitarists currently popular today. And hey, Wylde’s even got his own custom guitar lines for Gibson and Epiphone, which includes the signature Gibson Les Paul with a bulls-eye graphic that you may have seen used recently by none other than…Justin Bieber guitarist Dan Kanter*.

That’s an impressive resume right there, whether it includes out-selling Zeppelin and the Stones or not (note: it doesn’t). The back story to that is even nuttier – and the stuff of heavy metal legend. Born and raised in New Jersey, Wylde picked up the guitar at 14 and started playing in a few local bands during and after high school, earning his stripes in a group called Zyris and making ends meet in a series of menial jobs (including gas station attendant). A fortuitous run-in with a rock photographer helped land Wylde an audition with Ozzy Osbourne, who was looking for a new guitarist. Wylde couldn’t believe he got the gig; the 20-year old soon found out he was joining the ranks of Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee as Ozzy’s right hand man.

Several gigantic albums and multiple stadium tours followed. During his off-time, Wylde completed a solo record, an album under the name Pride & Glory, and, in 1998, formed the now legendary Black Label Society (BLS), which went on to earn its own fervent fan base (known as the Berzerkers).

This, you pretty much know. But the last few years have seen Wylde’s life radically altered. First, doctors discovered blood clots in his leg. “The doc was like, ‘you have, what, a drink a day? Six? 12? A case?’ I’m like, ‘It’s a liquid diet,’” says Wylde, laughing. “I mean, I’d drink beer while lifting weights. That’s Black Label Society style for you right there. But the doc told me if I kept this up, I’d be dead by the time I was 50. So I stopped drinking. No big deal.”

Then, the second bomb dropped. Osbourne, Wylde’s boss and mentor since 1988, announced he was looking for a new guitarist. “I heard that, and to me, hey, the glass was half-full,” he says. “It’s like, thanks for letting me be there for 23 years! I’ll always cherish that. What more could Ozzy do for me at this point? I look at it this way: instead of 24-7, Black Label Society is now my life 25-8,” he says.

On March 6, 2013, Black Label Society played a one night only concert at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Titled Unblackened, the show featured intimate versions of some of the band’s most popular songs, as well as songs from Wylde’s best-selling solo album Book of Shadows and Southern rock band Pride & Glory. Wylde played guitar and piano alongside the members of Black Label Society, accompanied by Derek Sherinian on keyboards and organ, and Gregg Locascio on vocals. The concert was broadcast live exclusively on AXS TV and a CD/DVD will be released later this year.

Previously, Black Label Society released their eighth studio album, Order Of The Black (2010), which featured two singles, “Parade Of The Dead” and “Crazy Horse” and entered the Billboard 200 at No. 4. The band then released their ninth studio album, The Song Remains Not The Same (2011), which was a compilation album featuring new, acoustic versions of songs originally released on Order Of The Black. The album reached No. 41 on the Billboard 200.

In addition to the 9 studio albums, Black Label Society has released one live album, two compilation albums, one EP, and three video albums. Black Label Society is comprised of Zakk Wylde (lead guitar, lead vocals), Nick Catanese (rhythm guitar), John DeServio (bass), and Chad Szeliga (drums).

Train

Train

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TRAIN is I, Pat Monahan (vocals), Jimmy Stafford (guitar) and Scott Underwood (drums). There are a bunch of others, past and present that have helped us do what we do on and off the road, but the three of us have been here since the start in 1994. Wow! 1994? Really?

We started playing as Train in San Francisco at a place called Mad Dog In The Fog. How I remember that I have no clue. Obviously, it left an impression because I guarantee I was in my cups. We were paid in beer for a while until they became aware of how many pints we could put away.

The three of us met through the other people that we started the band with and somehow the chemistry really worked, so we figured we would stick together for the long haul. Before we were Train, we were just kids that didn’t have any other skills. Sometimes not having a backup plan is best. Yeah, I said it.

We were selling out various places around the Bay area, building a great following, but we still couldn’t get a record deal. I remember one night a dude from Island Records came to us after a show and said, “My name is Simon Potts and I would like to sign you to Island.” We’re still waiting to hear back from Simon 18 years later!

In 1996 Columbia Records flew us to New York City for a showcase in a club named Don Hill’s. We were told all we had to do was show up and we’d have a record deal, but we weren’t even invited to their offices the next day. The quote from the boss there at the time was, “I didn’t see anything special.” And you know what? He was probably right. So we flew back to San Francisco with our tails tucked between our legs, and realized we had to get our shit together. We borrowed $25K from some friends and parents, and made a record ourselves in Southern California. Columbia heard it and actually came back around to sign us, which never happens. We toured relentlessly in a van with a trailer, put out a few singles including “Free,” “Meet Virginia,” and “I Am” and went on to sell a million albums.

After record one, we made a few more, won a couple of Grammys for “Drops of Jupiter,” toured the world, made a bunch of money, lost a few band mates, lost a ton of money, lost a few more band mates and finally hit a place in 2007 when it became quite evident that Train had been infected with a pretty robust case of the Jack-ass.

That year I made a solo record. It didn’t do big business but I think we all give that album a lot of value because it brought us together again. It was a time when we all had to reflect about what Train is and what we hoped it could be. The fact that we were all pretty broke helped us get humble too. We each decided to stop searching for what we could get FROM Train and started to work on what we could do FOR Train. That attitude change was crucial for us. We didn’t realize at the peak of our success that we had lost our way with it all. We were focused more on being bummed that we weren’t as big as Coldplay than on being psyched with the fact that we were TRAIN. We forgot that we actually love music and the reward isn’t money or hit songs, but is the gift of being able to create, perform and exist in a beautiful form of art that we were all so lucky to have been chosen for.

At that point in 2009, we made some more business changes that went along perfectly with our change of attitude. We recorded an album called Save Me, San Francisco. The title was a call for help, a plea for forgiveness because we felt as if we had let down our hometown by losing sight of who we were as Train, the “Bay Area Band”. The love that went into that recording ended up coming right back to us unexpectedly. We thought this recording might be our last major label release because there was little hope of it being very successful. The fact that “Hey, Soul Sister” (the first single from Save Me, San Francisco) was the #1 most downloaded song of 2010, got us another Grammy AND the album going platinum, was a clear reminder that love of music and love for our fans is the answer to us being a successful group as well as successful individuals. We are still blown away and very grateful.

So, here we are today. California 37 is our latest album. We just finished it a few days ago and we are kind of surprised how much we all love it. We actually feel as if we are improving over time, which in life is totally logical but in the music business is pretty much unheard of. The album has eleven songs that were written over the course of the past three years while touring the globe playing “Marry Me” and ukulele for everyone.

We asked our good friend, Butch Walker (Pink, Katy Perry, Weezer) to produce it. He’s an incredible producer and singer and writer and….Jeez what is he NOT good at? Oh yeah, Words With Friends!

We seem to be having more fun now than ever, except when my managers made me get a haircut a month ago. And yes, they did it in a really mean way.

Where was I? Oh yeah, fun. What an honor to get to make music that people care about. Seeing “Drive By” (our first single off of California 37) do so well so fast is crazy to us. We get to see our band on iTunes, right alongside some of our favorites when we visit the media download Mecca.

There you have it. I left out a whole bunch of b******t that doesn’t matter and maybe I even left out a few things that do (like the fact that we have a wine company, made three brilliant wines AND have more in the works), but you can always schedule an interview to get the rest or better yet just write something that makes us sound great and Jimmy or Scott will give you a back rub. I recommend Jimmy!

See you soon in the town you call home.

Love, TRAIN: Pat, Jimmy and Scott

Buddy Guy

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“Every time we would finish a session,” says Buddy Guy, “if everybody felt good about it, we’d say, ’Let’s do another.’ You need about 14, 15 songs for an album, but we had passed 18 songs and I said, ‘Man, when is this going to be over?’ But they kept throwing songs at me, and every damn thing we cut sounded pretty good. I got the word back that the label thought maybe it was a good idea to put two CDs out—one of them the slow stuff, more for listening, and the other, like B.B. King said, if you want to boogie-woogie all night long.”

The result has a title both simple and clever: Rhythm & Blues, the first double-album set of his storied career. But more than five decades into a life as one of the world’s leading bluesmen, Buddy Guy is used to new surprises, challenges, and accolades.

At age 76, he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a major influence on rock titans like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a pioneer of Chicago’s fabled West Side sound, and a living link to that city’s halcyon days of electric blues. He has received 6 Grammy Awards, 28 Blues Music Awards (the most any artist has received), the Billboard magazine Century Award for distinguished artistic achievement, and the Presidential National Medal of Arts. Rolling Stone ranked him in the top 25 of its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

The last year, in fact, has proven to be one of Guy’s most remarkable ever. He was awarded the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime contribution to American culture; earlier in the year, at a performance at the White House, he even persuaded President Obama to join him on a chorus of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Also in 2012, he published his long-awaited memoir, When I Left Home, and released Live at Legends, which has been nominated for Best New Recording in the Living Blues Awards. Meanwhile, Guy keeps looking to the future of the blues through his ongoing work with his 14-year-old protégé, Quinn Sullivan.

Now the story continues with Rhythm & Blues, 21 tracks which feature contributions from a stellar and wide-ranging set of guests, including Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and rising guitar wizard Gary Clark, Jr. “If you watch a ballgame, it seems like those guys are angry at one another, but when they finish playing, they go out and have drinks together,” says Guy. “Musicians were doing that before anybody—we don’t have rivals as far as who can outplay who, but we have so much fun letting other people think that’s what it is. So it’s really a blessing to have all of these guys on here.”

He had a specific inspiration for a duet with his friend Kid Rock, realizing that “Messin’ with the Kid”—a 1960 hit for Guy’s long-time partner Junior Wells—was a perfect fit lyrically and musically. “I was surprised he hadn’t gotten there himself,” says Guy. “I saw him at the White House and I thought, ‘I ain’t gonna tell him, ’cause he might go and do it himself, I’m going to wait until I can do it!” I threw it at him and he jumped the fence—he did a hell of a job with it.”

Probably the most unexpected guest on Rhythm & Blues (which was produced by Guy’s frequent collaborator Tom Hambridge, and recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios) is country superstar Keith Urban, who joins Guy on an emotional ballad called “One Day Away.” Guy maintains that he was well aware of Urban’s instrumental prowess before they teamed up. “I listen to everything, regardless of what type of music it’s branded,” he says. “If I hear a guitar that makes me pat my feet, and try to not go to sleep ’cause I’m afraid I might miss something, it’s all right with me. Any guy who can think about playing music is a friend of mine, and the door is always open.”

One song in particular jumped out at Guy, a funky travelogue called “Meet Me In Chicago” written by slide guitar maestro Robert Randolph. “I really fell in love with that one,” he says. “I been in Chicago 56 years—that sounds just like me. It’s not really blues, but it’s a good beat, so I wanted to see if I could do something with it.”

Though Buddy Guy will forever be associated with Chicago, his story actually begins in Louisiana. One of five children, he was born in 1936 to a sharecropper’s family and raised on a plantation near the small town of Lettsworth, located some 140 miles northwest of New Orleans. Buddy was just seven years old when he fashioned his first makeshift “guitar”—a two-string contraption attached to a piece of wood and secured with his mother’s hairpins. On the new album, he recounts these days on such deeply personal songs as “I Came Up Hard” and “My Mama Loved Me.”

In 1957, he took his guitar to Chicago, where he would permanently alter the direction of the instrument, first on numerous sessions for Chess Records playing alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the rest of the label’s legendary roster, and then on recordings of his own. His incendiary style—still in evidence all over Rhythm & Blues—left its mark on guitarists from Jimmy Page to John Mayer. “He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” said Eric Clapton at Guy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005. “My course was set, and he was my pilot.”

These many years later, Buddy Guy is a genuine American treasure, and one of the final surviving connections to an historic era in the country’s musical evolution. And still, as one glorious track on Rhythm & Blues puts it, he claims that “All That Makes Me Happy is the Blues.”

“I worry a lot about the legacy of Muddy, Wolf, and all the guys who created this stuff,” he says. “I want people to remember them. It’s like the Ford car—Henry Ford invented the Ford car, and regardless how much technology they got on them now, you still have that little sign that says ‘Ford’ on the front.

“One of the last things Muddy Waters told me—when I found out how ill he was, I gave him a call and said, ‘I’m on my way to your house.’ And he said, ‘Don’t come out here, I’m doing all right. Just keep the damn blues alive.’ They all told me that if they left here before I did, then everything was going to be on my shoulders. So as long as I’m here, I’m going to do whatever I can to keep it alive.”

Rock Candy Funk Party

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As Joe Bonamassa approaches his 25th year as a professional musician, he continues to blaze a remarkably versatile artistic trail, and amass an authentic, innovative and soulful body of work. Bonamassa’s career began onstage opening for B.B. King in 1989, when he was only 12 years old. Today, he is hailed worldwide as one of the greatest guitar players of his generation, and is an ever-evolving singer-songwriter who has released 15 solo albums in the last 13 years, all on his own label, J&R Adventures. Bonamassa’s tour schedule consistently hovers at around 200 shows worldwide each year, and a heaping handful of markedly diverse side projects keep him thinking outside the box and flexing every musical muscle he’s got. He founded and oversees the non-profit Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation to promote the heritage of the blues to the next generation, fund music scholarships, and supplement the loss of music education in public schools. There’s a case to be made that Joe Bonamassa, like another star who shared the same initials, is the hardest working man in show business.

In addition to live performances, 2013 will mark four major projects on the J&R release schedule: Bonamassa’s first-ever acoustic concert, recorded at the venerable Vienna Opera House with a global ensemble put together by Kevin Shirley; the neo-funk/jazz combo Rock Candy Funk Party; a second album—and first tour—with singer Beth Hart; and a career retrospective recorded and filmed at concerts at four iconic London venues, with show being chronicled for a separate release. After that, another blues-rock solo album—aka Joe’s “day job”—will no doubt follow, and perhaps a fourth set with hard rock outfit Black Country Communion at some point. “Sometimes journalists just shake their heads, and ask me ‘Isn’t it risky?,’” says Joe. “But I say why not do it? Why play it safe? I want to diversify, not just always have it be business as usual.”

It all builds on Bonamassa’s ascendant prominence of the past few years. Recent kudos include five consecutive “Best Blues Guitarist” wins and a top “Best Overall Guitarist” honor in Guitar Player’s Annual Readers’ Choice Awards, and recognition as Billboard’s #1 Blues Artist, 2010— the year Joe Bonamassa: Live At The Royal Albert Hall was released, featuring Eric Clapton joining him onstage. Reviewing 2011’s Dust Bowl, Premier Guitar wrote, “Over time, Bonamassa has created his own universe that no longer has much to do with what we think of as traditional blues. It’s movie music for your mind with astonishingly great guitar playing.” Regarding Bonamassa’s 2012 album Driving Towards The Daylight (with guests including Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford), Guitar World called him the “roots-based six-string’s new king of pyromania.” Rolling Stone wrote, “his exacting singing blends with fiery symphonic playing.” In a review for the 2012 CD/DVD Joe Bonamassa: Beacon Theatre—Live From New York, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, “He makes every note matter and resonate emotionally. Indeed, he is one of the finest musicians in the business today.”

The first in the queue of Bonamassa’s 2013 releases is We Want Groove, the debut from Rock Candy Funk Party, a quartet of world renowned players who convened for the sheer joy of making music and mutual love for genre-blurring grooves. Featuring nine original tracks, the album—produced by drummer Tal Bergman—is a super-tight reboot of classic ’70s/ ’80s jazz-funk from musicians whose collective credits include, among many others, Joe Zawinul, Hugh Masekela, Prince, Ruth Brown, Chaka Khan, Simples Minds, Billy Idol, Tito Puente, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Levon Helm, Conan O’Brien, and Sheila E. In addition to Bonamassa and Bergman, the Rock Candy Funk Party line-up features Ron DeJesus (guitar), Mike Merritt (bass) and Renato Neto (keys).

For KPCC, Steve Hochman writes, “The result is music that at times echoes both [Jeff] Beck’s ‘70s albums and, oh, the soul-funk of Average White Band or Tower of Power, while Neto’s keyboards in particular add elements of fellow Brazilian Deodato and, in the more subdued passages, the atmospheric side of Weather Report.” Bonamassa himself says, “It really was the definition of collaboration, one of those records where you want to bottle the vibe and save it for all albums. It is still one of my most fun musical experiences to date, world-class players all around.”

Next up is An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (CD/DVD/Blu-ray), filmed in HD and recorded in Dolby 5.1 as part of Bonamassa’s unprecedented series of “unplugged” dates in Europe in 2012. Producer Kevin Shirley—a longtime creative partner of Bonamassa’s who has produced nine of his albums, and many more for artists including Led Zeppelin and John Hiatt—assembled a multi-cultural/world group especially for the project, which is the artist’s first-ever acoustic release. The Opera House in Vienna, regarded as the “City of Music,” was chosen for the main event because of its history and splendor, and association with many legendary composers. Accompanying Bonamassa on the same stage once graced by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, and Haydn are: traditional Irish fiddler Gerry O’Connor, who also plays mandolin and banjo; Swedish multi-instrumentalist Mats Wester on the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle; Los Angeles-based keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum texturing the mix with celeste, accordions, toy pianos, and assorted “organic” instruments; and renowned Puerto Rican percussionist Lenny Castro.

Joe recalls, “Originally, when I had the idea of doing an all-acoustic concert, I imagined doing it solo. I’d surround myself with a bunch of guitars, tell the background story of each song, and then play it. Kevin believed the show would be more exciting with a band and he got to work. All of a sudden, we had a five-piece group, and 72 hours to rehearse 20 or so songs. It was amazing, different than anything I’d ever done before.” An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House features gorgeously textured music made with a wealth of rare, vintage, organic, and “oddball” instruments. Highlights among the 22 songs include “Woke Up Dreaming”—the one acoustic song, and fan favorite, that Bonamassa regularly plays during his electric shows— as well as “Around The Bend,” “Driving Towards The Daylight,” “Ball Peen Hammer,” and “Sloe Gin.”

Bonamassa’s second album with blues-rock vocal diva Beth Hart reprises the powerful dual chemistry they generated on 2011’s Don’t Explain, a collection of ten soul and blues covers that both honors and rethinks the original recordings—classics made famous by artists including Billie Holiday, Etta James, Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Delaney & Bonnie, Bill Withers, and Aretha Franklin. Of the sessions for Don’t Explain, producer Kevin Shirley says, “Beth’s got a pretty heady voice, very reminiscent of Janis Joplin, and she’s also got a lot of Etta James in her, but hadn’t really accessed it yet. With this material, there is gentleness to the way she delivers the most heartfelt tunes that she hasn’t shown before.” Shirley will also produce the as-yet-untitled volume two, and Bonamassa and Hart (who recently brought down the house tributing Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center honors) are once again backed by the band featured on Bonamassa’s 2009 Blues chart-topper The Ballad of John Henry: Anton Fig (drums, percussion), Blondie Chaplin (guitar), and Carmine Rojas (bass), as well as Arlan Schierbaum (keyboards). They will also perform several concert dates in Europe.

While Bonamassa is always stretching creatively and looking forward, he will also celebrate his story so far in a major way this year. He and his band will perform concerts—that will be recorded and filmed—at each of the four venues in London which he’s has previously played, from the smallest on up: The Borderline, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, HMV Hammersmith Apollo, and The Royal Albert Hall. Each show will feature a different configuration of the band, and a different selection of songs from Bonamassa’s extensive catalogue—nothing will be repeated. By year’s end, J&R Adventures will release a two-disc DVD set from each of the four concerts; CDs of each show will come out in 2014.

Live-on-stage is exactly the right format for a career retrospective spotlighting an artist known for transformational live performances. “No one on the scene today plays with as much passion, has as much finesse and raw talent, has reverence for those who came before him, and has as much passion for his craft as Joe Bonamassa,” writes Classic Rock Revisited. But Bonamassa’s still got a long way to go, and will certainly in turn inspire many who come after him as he continues to reinvent himself with a varied palette of side projects—and logs endless miles “dressing up in sunglasses and a suit,” touring the world and growing his legacy as one of the greatest guitar slingers of all time.

JJ Grey & Mofro

JJ Grey

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Over the course of six albums and a decade of touring, JJ Grey’s grimy blend of front porch soul and down-home storytelling has taken him around the world and back again.  Beating the streets on nearly every continent, he and his band Mofro have sewn a continuous thread of laying-it-on-the-line shows that move folks to dance and at times to tears.

JJ was raised in North Florida by a typically Southern extended family that valued hard work and self-reliance. This upbringing permeates his no nonsense approach to writing and performing and has given him an abundance of material to write about in his songs.

“A friend of mine once said that we’re all characters if we’re given enough room to be one. I guess I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who had plenty of room cause Lord knows I know some larger-than-life ones. I’ve had a lot of laughs and good times with those characters. We’ve shared some hard times too.”

These characters and JJ’s own triumphs and struggles, make regular appearances throughout his lyrics. “Looking at his show now, it’s remarkable to think how far he’s come, and to realize the creative spirit and force of will it’s taken to get there,” says longtime producer and friend Dan Prothero. “But it’s also remarkable to see him up there singing about the worst of it, and smiling a smile that has come from accepting the good with the bad. In recent years I think he’s come to realize that the fighting stance that seemed to get him where he needed to go back then wasn’t getting him where he needed to go now, and so he changed. Letting go and letting it all happen is at the heart of his creative process now.”

“The best songs I’ve ever wrote, I never wrote. They wrote themselves. The best show I ever played, played itself and had little to do with me or talent. To me those things come from the power of an honest moment and I guess I’m trying to live in that power and not
force life to cough up what I want. That power is always there whether I’m aware of it or not. Force is the opposite. It requires effort and comes at a great cost. The cost has always been my freedom to truly enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it.”

April 2013 brings the release of JJ’s sixth studio album, This River. Named for the St. John’s River — a centering point for his childhood near Jacksonville, Florida — This River flows from freewheeling celebrations (“Florabama”) to dark inner journeys (“Somebody Else”), from late night, beer-soaked testimonials (“Your Lady”) to heartfelt ballads of the almost-forgotten (“The Ballad Of Larry Webb”), and ends with the title track and a singularly devastating vocal performance. With Dan Prothero at the helm as producer, JJ and the band once again returned to Retrophonics Studio in nearby St. Augustine, Florida and muscled out some of JJ’s strongest material to date.

“We set up much like we do for our shows, and cut the tracks as close to live as possible,” says Grey, “there’s something about everybody getting into one room and playing together. It brings some spark that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of too much overdubbing.”

JJ’s band Mofro has also been a decade in the making. Over that time, great players have come and gone, but according to JJ, the present incarnation — with Art Edmaiston on saxophone, Dennis Marion on Trumpet, Anthony Farrell on organ and piano, Todd Smallie on Bass, Anthony Cole on drums and Andrew Trube on guitar – is “the creme de la crème”

“These musicians I get to play with make it look easy. I’ve learned so much from them about music and about life in general. It ain’t always easy to keep a core together when you do so many shows a year, year after year, but I truly hope to keep these guys together as long as possible.”

Many of Grey’s songs reflect his love for the North Florida wilderness in which he grew up. Having watched his native home be decimated by egregious development, and this has often figured heavily into his lyrics. He now works with groups such as The Snook & Gamefish Foundation and the St. Johns Riverkeepers, but still doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist.

“I guess I’ve never really believed that there is an environment that’s separate from me.  I reckon that my connection to the environment, which I could call my home, is part of the connection to myself. I believe that whatever I do to my home and everything in it, I in-turn do to myself.”

From his early days playing cover music behind chicken wire at a Westside (Jacksonville) juke joint to playing sold-out shows and some of the largest music festivals in the world, it’s been a long road. But JJ has no illusions about where he’s headed or where he’s been. When prompted with questions about his past accomplishments or future plans, JJ lays down a little backwoods wisdom:

“I’m just a salmon swimming up stream. Going back home I reckon. I don’t know why and I quit caring why a long time ago. I guess there is no ‘why’ that my mind could understand anyway. All I do know is that I’ve enjoyed and I’m still enjoying every second of just being here and doing whatever it is I’m doing.”

Jake Bugg

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By now, it’s likely you will have heard of Jake Bugg following on from his support slots at two of the year’s hottest gigs: namely The Stone Roses’ miniscule secret London show at Village Underground, and a week later, Noel Gallagher’s smallest ever solo performance at Camden’s Dingwalls. Come October, the latter legend will also be taking him on the rest of his 2012 tourdates, in Europe, America and beyond.

But let’s be clear: Jake Bugg is not “well connected”, schmoozing his way into these advantageous situations. How could he be? He’s spent most of his 18 years on this planet thus far in Nottingham, only coming to London following on from record company attention. The only thing doing the schmoozing are Jake’s amazing songs.

As he shrugs: “I think Noel just got the tunes and liked what he heard.”

This is true. And Noel G and The Stone Roses are not the only ones. All across the land he has been working hard, playing songs and garnering new converts wherever he goes. His headline November shows in Manchester and London have both been upgraded due to demand; the release of his debut album has been brought forward – unheard of in this day and age because people want to get their hands on it. Jake is pretty clear about what it is that is connecting with. “I don’t pay too much attention to compliments,” he says, “but the most common thing that people are coming up to me and saying after the gigs is that it’s refreshing. It seems like every time people say guitar music is dead, that’s when it comes back. I think people are hungry for it. And I hope that more people start picking up the guitar instead of wobbling on a synth.”

Jake’s inspiration for the old way of doing things arrived via a relatively modern medium: an episode of The Simpsons. “Don McClean’s ‘Vincent came on,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘What’s that song?” From there I just wanted to be able to play that song and write songs like it, and that’s where it all started for me, really.”

From there, he did what anyone does when they fall for a song hook, line and sinker: he began tracing it back. Via Youtube, he explored the other works of McLean, and then went further back through Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, seeking the ultimate origins of all the great songwriters. That was what turned him on. “Modern music came later for me,” he says. “I remember hearing Arctic Monkeys for the first time, and I didn’t really like it. It was only when I got a bit older that I started thinking, ‘That’s bang on, that’s great.’ It took a while.”

Age “about 14”, he started picking up his uncle’s acoustic guitar and, having learnt other people’s songs, started experimenting with his own. It didn’t take long for him to start coming up with worthwhile stuff. In fact, one of the best songs on his debut album, ‘Someplace’ dates back to this time. A beautiful melancholic ballad, it exhibits the undeniable, natural gift for melody that characterises all of Jake’s songs. He was in “a couple of bands”, but it quickly became apparent to him and those around him that this was to be a solo thing. “I always wanted to do things on my own, really,” he says, “and because it took off kind of quick, that’s how it ended up, thankfully.”

Jake only got signed about a year or so ago, but such is his prolific nature that he did not waste any time in getting down to business. A huge amount of songs were put down for his eponymous debut album, which have now been narrowed down to 14. He is not one for directly discussing the meaning in his songs, but he doesn’t really need to. Take a listen to the lines in ‘Two Fingers’ and you’ll instantly hear where he is coming from: “I go back to Clifton to see my old friends/The best people I could ever have met/I skin up a fat one/And hide from the feds.” Ultimately, it’s a song about using music as an escape route from the realities of life, and this is a theme that runs through most of his songs. ”Taste It’ finds him wanting to “fill my head with the future” and expressing that he’s “never felt more alive”. His debut single ‘Trouble Town’ is like a classic blues lyric: “Stuck in speed bump city, where the only thing that’s pretty is the thought of getting out”.

“A lot of them are about my life before, and about not giving a shit about. numerous things,” he says. “I’m not very good at explaining those sort of things, but they’re all from personal experiences. I try not to think about it too much when I’m writing, because I think it’s better to just let if flow.”

This is key to what Jake Bugg and his songs are all about: from the rough and ready, abrasive guitars on ‘Lightning Bolt’ to the wise-beyond-his-years observations of ‘Seen It All’, to all of the other songs you can find on his debut, it’s all just so natural, so real, so un-thought through, so obviously from the soul. He is the sort of artist that so many people have been yearning for, of the kind that we have not seen since. well, since the people who are currently asking him to come out on tour with them.

To put it extremely simply, Jake Bugg is the most exciting new singer and songwriter in the UK. No contest.

The Rides

The Rides

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No stranger to top flight musical partnerships, legendary singer-songwriter and Buffalo Springfield/CSN/CSN&Y principal Stephen Stills unites with fellow guitar slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd and venerable Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg to form the new all-star blues-rock group The Rides. The multi-generational outfit’s debut album, Can’t Get Enough, is set for CD, digital, and vinyl release August 27 on 429 Records. Featuring four co-written originals, a handful of covers, and a vintage, previously unrecorded Stills gem, Can’t Get Enough was inspired by—and is an homage to—the now-classic 1968 album Super Session, which featured Stills on guitar on one side, and the late Mike Bloomfield on the other (Bloomfield had founded Electric Flag with Goldberg, who also played on Super Session, as did Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboardist Al Kooper). As The Rides bring a historic and distinctively American musical form into the 21st century, Stills calls the group the “the blues band of my dreams.”

The project began with Stills and Goldberg writing together at their mutual manager Elliot Roberts’ recommendation. “It was like finding a long lost soul brother,” says Goldberg (who hadn’t met Stills before, their shared 1968 credit notwithstanding). “We connected on so many things, started jamming, and soon had begun writing our first song.” Next came Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and their three-way chemistry was immediate and intense. “The Rides are a perfect mix of generations, where three musicians who love and play the blues collide and create music that goes beyond all our other individual life experiences and career achievement,” says 35-year-old, Shepherd, who’s had five #1 Blues albums. “Stephen and I have rock backgrounds as well, but the blues is the fabric that holds this all together.” Stills says, “It was just really magical with the three of us, one of the best times I’ve had in my musical career.”

That exhilarating creative sorcery blasts through ten fire-breathing tracks, four of them Stills/Shepherd/Goldberg co-writes including the album-opening barnburner “RoadHouse”—about the life of an itinerant bluesman—the melodic, CSN-esque “Don’t Want Lies,” and the title track, a groove soaked, guitar-heavy anthem with a soul-baring lead vocal by Stills. Other highlights include a Crazy Horse-caliber send-up of “Rockin’ In The Free World”—“Everyone gets off on this one,” says Goldberg, “just a ton of electricity on this Neil Young classic.” The four additional covers are the tracks on which Shepherd sings lead, including “Talk To Me Baby” and “Honey Bee” by blues giants Elmore James and Muddy Waters, respectively, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” which The Rides truly make their own. The album closes with the raucous “Word Game,” a song Stills wrote during his late ’60s era with Buffalo Springfield, but never recorded. “It was an old acoustic song that I had fun adapting to an electric band,” he says.

The in-the-moment energy and unscripted emotion of Can’t Get Enough, however, are among the album’s greatest strengths, as is the powerhouse guitar interplay between Stills and Shepherd, and the stellar accompaniment from Goldberg—who, as a teenager in his native Chicago, sat in with Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf, and went on to play keyboards for Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, formed The Electric Flag, and composed with Gerry Goffin. The album was recorded live in the studio over the course of about a week at EastWest in Los Angeles, helmed by longtime Shepherd producer Jerry Harrison, a renowned musician in his own right (Talking Heads, Modern Lovers, Casual Gods). Mostly first or second takes made the album’s final cut. In addition to Layton—Shepherd’s drummer, and also a veteran of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble—the players include bassist Kevin McCormick (CSN, Jackson Browne).

“In the spirit of that simple, raw authentic 40s and 50s blues music the three of us love, we got in there and boom! A few takes and we were done,” says Stills. “The songs have muscle, they don’t sound dated or contrived, they’re very natural and organic. I can’t wait to tour with these guys and start recording again!” The Rides will tour the world beginning in September, with concert dates to be announced soon.