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"I had a secret weapon on this album," blues superstar Joe Bonamassa says of Different Shades Of Blue, his first studio solo album since 2012's Driving Towards Daylight, and he doesn't mean his envy-inspiring assortment of vintage Les Pauls, Teles and Strats. "I sang the entire record using Breathe Right Strips. I've been having some problems because of a deviated septum, and when I tried using the strips at the mic, I was like, ‘Man, you can actually get some range with these things.’”
Don't look for Bonamassa to sport the strips on stage, however, on his upcoming tour, which includes a stop at Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheater on August 31 ("my first time there – I'm so psyched!"). After finishing the sessions for the new album, the singer-guitarist underwent septoplasty surgery to correct his nasal issues. "Surprisingly, it didn't hurt," he marvels, "even though they gave me enough Vicodin to put down a water buffalo, which I didn't use, by the way. But it's really helped my singing. My head voice opened up, my range is better, and I’ve got more control." He chuckles and says, "I just tell people that I got a nose job."
A lot is different about Different Shades Of Blue. Containing only one cover (a minute-and-half-long blast of Jimi Hendrix's Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) along with an "inspired by" mash-up tribute to Ray Charles and Cornell Dupree called So, What Would I Do (the song borrows elements of both performers' versions of What Would I Do Without You, with new lyrics by Bonamassa), the album represents the guitarist's biggest collection of originals since 2002's So, It's Like That. The album also took roughly a year to make, an eternity in Bonamassa time, figuring in writing dates in Nashville and tracking sessions in Las Vegas with regular JB producer Kevin Shirley.
"For me, that's a long gap between records for me," Bonamassa notes. "I was putting out new albums ever six weeks – something had to change. And taking that extra time proved to be really valuable. I’ve got a really strong album that I’m really proud of. You can’t just churn these things out all the time. Sometimes you need to catch your breath and take a step back."
Bonamassa made five trips to Music City and spent a month working with heavy-hitter songsmiths such as James House, Jerry Flowers. Jeffrey Steele and Journey's Jonathan Cain, combining elements of country with blues. "These are real lyric-writing dudes," Bonamassa says, "and they're good story guys. They know song structure in a way that I don’t – or at least kind of forgot. I can write a good song when I want to, but I kind of lost the art of songcraft. Life was happening, and happening too fast. So I chilled out for a bit and wrote with these guys and picked up a lot of great tricks."
Bonamass's band in the studio included Reese Wyans (organ, piano), Carmine Rojas and Michael Rhodes on bass, Anton Fig (drums and percussion) Lenny Castro (percussion), Lee Thornburg and Ron Dziubla on horns, the Bovland Orchestra (strings) and background vocalists Doug Henthorn and Melanie Williams. "Everybody brought such A-games to the party, it was pretty incredible," Bonamassa raves. "And, of course, when you're working with people that strong, you have to really step it up yourself."
He pauses, then adds, “It is a bit of a different mindset with originals versus covers. When you’re doing a cover, there’s a structure and something to go by – you have a road map that’s been traveled before. With an original, it’s all open space. You’re going somewhere for the first time.” He lets out a laugh and says, "That's what I think is great about this record: It's new stories, new approaches. I worked really hard on it. I hope everybody likes it as much as I do."
Joe Bonamassa's Different Shades Of Blue will be released on September 23. You can pre-order the album at this link. Below, check out an exclusive viewing of Bonamassa's second "webisode" of the album sessions. And on the following pages, the blues star walks us through the entire set track-by-track.