On May 17, the Central New York-bred guitar prodigy Joe Bonamassa made his return to Syracuse for a show at the Landmark Theatre. Music editor Jessica Novak’s review of the show ran in the May 23 issue of The New Times and quickly drew attention, especially when Bonamassa himself addressed the review, Novak and The New Times directly on both his fan and personal Facebook pages.
His comments spurred thousands of replies—both defending and attacking Novak, blog posts in England, phone calls from Chicago, emails and even threats. However, among the proliferation of responses, one stood out as especially well-written and comprehensive of larger ideas lost in much of the bar-lowering cyber banter.
After a few weeks the dust finally settled and the letter was pushed aside in favor of keeping things calm. However, after more than seven months, it seems fitting to wrap up one of the biggest local music topics of the year with the missive.
I’m writing this letter regarding Jessica Novak’s review of Joe Bonamassa’s concert at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse and the controversy surrounding her assessment of Joe’s performance. While her review definitely hit a nerve among his fans, I feel that Novak touches upon something larger which bears mentioning.
For starters, let me say that I was not at the concert she wrote about. I have been a fan of Joe’s guitar playing for several years now, and I have seen Joe roughly a dozen or so times. Each time I’ve seen him perform I’ve been even more impressed by his technical command of his instrument than I was previously. This stated, Novak’s assessment that Joe’s performance lacked soul is an opinion I’ve heard voiced by many other very qualified musicians as well, and is not necessarily intended as an insult, which Joe’s Facebook response indicates that he took it as.
The “soul” she refers to is what I believe is the raw emotion that the blues expresses. While Joe’s music definitely has soul to my ears, it is the soul of rock music that I hear in his playing, which I believe to be a different type of soul than the blues requires. Novak calls it ego-driven, and I do not find this to be a negative comment. Rock music always has been very ego-driven by nature, and the blues/rock power trio format has mainly heralded the expression of the guitarist as the paramount endeavor of the band.
The fact that the era of rock which Joe
emulates so well is steeped in the blues does not qualify him as a bona
fide “blues man,” however. By Joe’s own admission, his main influences
were blues-based British rock artists, and he has stated in interviews
that he was always more or less bored after listening to the first song
of a Muddy Waters album. This statement is very telling of the dichotomy
between blues and blues rock.
The fact that the era of rock which Joe emulates so well is steeped in the blues does not qualify him as a bona fide “blues man,” however. By Joe’s own admission, his main influences were blues-based British rock artists, and he has stated in interviews that he was always more or less bored after listening to the first song of a Muddy Waters album. This statement is very telling of the dichotomy between blues and blues rock.
People seem to forget that blues music is the very visceral musical expression of African Americans from the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. These musicians were literally the children and grandchildren of slaves. They lived in a violent, segregated world. These were people who worried about being lynched for looking at a white person the wrong way. All of these conditions bred the blues, a medium of musical expression so pure that the listener is captivated by the intensity. I’m not claiming that only African American people can play the blues, I’m merely stating that musicians who play blues or rock music have a duty to understand the difference.
While blues-based rock music is intense as well, it draws on the expressive power of the blues and expresses different emotions altogether. The blues/rock artists of the 1960s expressed emotions from their own experiences, and did a damn good job of it at that. Blues rock was new and innovative but it was different. I hear egotism in much of rock music, which has its place. The downside is that many listeners erroneously equate rock music and the blues as one and the same, which I consider a disservice to the blues.
Joe Bonamassa’s liner notes to his album Blues Deluxe draws the comparison between himself and Robert Johnson, and claims that inside Joe is the soul of an old bluesman. While taking nothing away from Joe’s life experience and 30 years of hard work to get where he is today, I find this comparison absurd. I feel it’s safe to say that Joe’s life experience has been in no way, shape or manner similar to Robert Johnson’s.
While Joe is without a doubt one of the better guitarists of his generation, he comes from a world of privilege Robert Johnson couldn’t have imagined in his short life. Robert Johnson wasn’t potty trained with a guitar in his hands, and his father did not own a guitar store and groom him to be where he is today with personal mentoring from some of the best guitarists in society.
These false comparisons only serve to blur the line between blues and blues rock. This is why you have people who like “blues sounding” music but have no real grasp of what the blues really is. I’m not saying that Joe cannot play the blues, but from what I’ve heard of his new material he’s playing more rock/metal fusion.
It’s important to recognize that as listeners, music is subjective and what one person hears another may not, and that is just the nature of the beast. When you put yourself in front of people as a musician, you open yourself up to judgment, not all of which is good. Nobody should know this better than Joe. Not only am I disappointed in his reaction to Novak (telling somebody they “suck” is the response of a petulant child, not a professional musician), I am curious to know what he deems as acceptable constructive criticism. Many of his fans have commented how nice and humble Joe is in person, and I have experienced this firsthand myself talking to him after a show. It’s important to note that it is easy to be nice and humble when someone tells you how great of an artist you are. To act otherwise would be insane. True humility is shown by the way an artist reacts to an opinion unfavorable to them, not how they react to fawning servility.
The level of class an artist possesses is apparent in their response to criticism. I also find the response of many of Joe’s fans to Novak’s review reprehensible. I felt that while her critique was, indeed, critical, it did not constitute a personal attack. I suppose this goes with the territory of being called a “critic.” Overall, it was a very glowing review.
I have a copy of a full page cover of the Syracuse New Times feature of Joe from 10 years ago that he signed for me at a show, which serves as proof that the paper has been very supportive of Joe over the years. Joe’s response does not acknowledge any of this support. This does not constitute humility in my book. Also, Joe’s failure to address the inappropriate responses of many of his fans is very disappointing to me as well.
As much as I love Joe’s music, I am annoyed at many of his fans who act as though he is the only musician who ever lived. These are people who worry themselves with pointless titles such as “the fastest guitarist” or “the best guitarist,” and completely miss the point of what music is, which is a distilled form of human expression that is very broad and complex. To each their own, but Joe’s mastery of the guitar is one small part of the multifaceted language of music. I have been more moved by a gut wrenching three-chord song than I have by Joe’s music, but for different reasons. I respect expression in all of its forms, provided that it captures the essence of human experience.
I feel that the common denominator among the greatest guitarists is that they manage to draw from all of their influences and synthesize their own style unto themselves. Guitar playing, songwriting and presentation all play into a musician’s craft. For years I would see Joe play and every set would be identical and every line would be the same at the same moment in the set...”You guys don’t mind if I play a little blues, do ya?”
After a while it seemed more and more like a canned commodity rather than live music. While Joe definitely has improved since those days, to have the arrogance of believing that you are above constructive criticism indicates that Joe feels he has no room for improvement, which is impossible.
I thank Novak for her honest review. She is an asset to the Syracuse New Times and I wish her luck. I wish Joe the best as well, and I look forward to hearing his new material. I hope that he can develop the ability to form a constructive argument against opinions that he disagrees with, and hopefully this ability will spill over to some of his fans as well. I doubt Robert Johnson would have worried this much about what one music critic thought.