Joe Bonamossa and Blueswax/Bluesreview

10 Apr

Joe Bonamossa and Blueswax/Bluesreview

By: Bob Gersztyn

All photography copyright by Bob Gersztyn

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I’ve got to get back on track, which is writing about about music and religion, either together or separately. So now I will re-begin with a reprint of both my concert review and an interview with Blues superstar, Joe Bonamossa, back in 2011, for Blueswax and its parent publication Blues Review. The editor in chief was my good buddy Chip Eagle, who ran it until 2013, when it discontinued publication. Chip was to hardcore, real blues at the turn of the 21st century, what people like Dick Waterman and John Fahey were, back in the early 1960’s. So I was able to get in any blues or blues related concert and event that I wanted to cover. From 2002, beginning with my interview with Ike Turner, to my coverage of the 2013 Waterfront Blues Festival, in Portland, Oregon, I photographed, reviewed and interviewed hundreds of current and upcoming artists. Blues is the profane counterpart to the sacred sounds of gospel music with some jazz thrown in for good measure. So without further ado, let me present a reprint from Blueswax/Bluesreview, from 2011, reprinted with permission, just a mere 4 1/2 years later.

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Joe Bonamassa Concert Review

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Portland, Oregon

December 14, 2011

By: Bob Gersztyn


The last time that I saw Joe Bonamassa was in 2008 when he played at the Waterfront Blues Festival, in Portland. His performance was one of the most outstanding of over 100 acts that played at the festival and drew fans from all over the Pacific Northwest. Some of them said that they travelled hundreds of miles to see Joe before he headed across the ocean for what became a hugely successful tour in Great Brittan. At that time Bonamassa was promoting his 2007 release, Sloe Gin. Three years later he was back in the City of Roses, playing at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, one of its most sonically perfect venues, which would provide a good contrast to the day time outdoor festival that Bonamassa played at last time.

There was no opening act and the band took the dark stage promptly at 8:00 PM. The auditorium was pitch black as the quartet made their entrance, with Joe walking out last and standing silhouetted by blinding stage lights shining off the floor. The stage was an array of Marshall amplifiers adorned with Joe Bonamassa bobble head’s, keyboards, drum kit and towers with lights. Joe was wearing a charcoal gray suit and a white shirt, open at the neck, without a tie, spit shinned brown wing tips, along with his trademark sunglasses. He began to play his guitar with opening power chords, which were soon joined by drums, bass and keyboards, until Joe began to sing.

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“If I was a cradle, would you let me rock? If I was a pony, would you let me trot?”

            “Cradle Song” was off 2002’s A New Day Yesterday and it became a blazing inferno of sound that eventually led into “When the Fire Hits the Sea, off 2010’s Black Rock. Bonamassa used both numbers to assault the audience’s olfactory lobes with enough decibel damage to initiate them to what they could expect for the rest of the night, if they didn’t already know. The next song was “Midnight Blues,” a cover of the late Gary Moore’s composition in a tribute to one of his influences. Unlike most American blues artists, Bonamassa cites British and Irish blues rockers as his primary influences. Bonamassa’s smokey blue voice is as much a part of his repertoire as his guitar, so when he began singing the words…

“It’s the darkest hour of the darkest night It’s a million miles from the morning light,”

            They seamlessly segued into rolling guitar licks as he shredded his axe until it began hemorrhaging torrents of ear shattering emanations and perfect sonic phrasings duplicating the lyrics note for note.


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            Regular instrument switches from Bonamassa’s arsenal of guitars took place periodically throughout the night’s performance, beginning with “Slow Train,” off his current 2011 release, Dust Bowl, as he temporarily switched the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst for his custom made Gibson “Bona-Bird. Drummer Tal Bergman looked like a Viking warrior, as he sat behind the drum kit with long curly flowing blonde locks and began playing the driving rhythm intro to the song, when he suddenly stood up and threw his drum sticks into the crowd, as he turned and walked off the stage, only to immediately return with a new set of drum sticks. The stage was darkened with flashing lights as Bergman sat down and once again began beating out the rhythm that simulated the sound of a chugging train, as Bonamassa accompanied him with the driving rhythm of power down stroke chords. Joe’s plaintive voice broke in and began singing, “there’s a slow train coming…, until it broke in peals of guitar licks that ran up and down the scales and exploded into crescendo’s of sound that seamlessly wove together with lyrics that traversed the history of the railroad and its associations with the blues.

            As on the album the following number was the title song, “Dust Bowl,” which continued the train rhythm, to a spaghetti western theme as Joe dove into the song with an intensity that soon had the entire band joining in. Bass player, Carmine Rojas strutted around the stage like he was caught up in an ecstatic frenzy, as Bonamassa sang “taking me up, taking me down.” “You Better Watch Yourself,” the next selection, was another cut off Dustbowl, as Joe continued dancing, prancing and strutting us and down the stage while putting the Gibson signature Les Paul prototype, “Bonamassa Burst,” through ear shattering string bending. The stage lighting was superb, and complimented the musical selections with colors ranging from blue to green with touches of red, interspersed with bright spotlights. Over the past 5 decades stage lighting has progressed from simple spot lights to elaborate light arsenals containing every color of the rainbow, in every shade and intensity available to the wonders of current electronic technology.

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            Tal Bergman and Carmine Rojas left the stage and only Rick Melick remained, on keyboards, quietly playing, as Bonamassa began the intro to “Sloe Gin,” while various members of the audience kept screaming “Joe,” as he continued to play undistracted. The guitar piano interplay continued until Joe’s voice broke in “Sloe Gin, Sloe Gin,” and Bergman and Rojas took their places again and rocked it into the stratosphere. After the song concluded Bonamassa spoke to the audience for the first time, as he told them “thank you, thank you very much,” and talked about a performance in Portland, 10 years earlier, at the “infamous” Roseland Theater,” as he called it. He was the opening act for Buddy Guy, and a local DJ was going to introduce him. Joe was concerned that he pronounce his name properly and the DJ demonstrated his skill by quickly repeating “Bonamassa” 3 times. Then when the DJ introduced Joe he said, “Our first performer is John Bonamassa.”

            Bonamassa introduced “The Ballad of John Henry,” from the album of the same name as the closest thing to a hit that he ever had, out of the 12 studio albums that he’s released, containing 134 different cuts. As he talked to the audience he walked to the left side of the stage and reached his hand out to a single rod theramin that emitted a high pitched oscillating sound that Joe controlled my with his limb proximity. He moved his right hand around the device, which continued to scream, until he was pointing straight up in the air, when he suddenly brought his hand down on his guitar to duplicate the sound of the theramin. The sound of the driving guitar was joined by the rest of the band who played steady and hard, with Bergman beating out a driving rhythm as Rojas thumped the counter beat. Bonamassa’s soaring voice broke in, “Who killed John Henry , In the battle of sinners and saints…” “Lonesome Road Blues” gave the band another opportunity to rock the house, as Bonamassa and Bergman played off each other. The tempo went down a notch as the band broke into “Happier Times,” to Joe’s sweet sounding guitar echoing vibratos and pealing licks that danced in the ether to the audience’s delight.

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            “Further Up the Road” brought out guest musician by the name of Eddie Martinez, who was an old friend of bass player Carmine Rojas’s. Joe explained that Martinez performed on the same stage 30 years earlier when he played with Labelle. They rocked out the house with the same song that Eric Clapton played on, when Bonamassa performed at Royal Albert Hall in London. After the song concluded, Martinez stayed on stage as Joe began playing the intro to “Blues Deluxe,” until Eddie jumped in and began wailing on his guitar. Joe’s raspy voice soared as Martinez played off it, until Bergman’s driving drums exploded and drove everything up a couple of notches. The song concluded in a thunderous jam that left Bonamassa and Martinez frantically playing off each other.

            Everyone left the stage except for Bonamassa, who exchanged guitars again for a Gibson double neck and drummer Tal Bergman. Joe began playing “Stairway To Heaven” and then transitioned into Mose Allison’s classic blues song from 1959, “Young Man Blues.”

“Well a young man He ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days.”

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            Bergman put aside his drum sticks and began playing with his hands as he and Bonamassa played off each other, until they were both interacting like they were possessed by the same spirit. Joe then traded the double neck for an acoustic guitar as he remained the only one on stage and stood front and center. He began playing by alternating between picking and strumming as he built up intensity and transcended into flamenco, until he began singing, “woke up dreaming I was going to die…” Bonamassa is a virtuoso of the guitar, regardless of its amplification system, and his digital gymnastics exuded orgasmic emanations that continued to delight the audience, as evidenced by the whistles, hoots and screams every time there was a lull in the instrument’s intensity.

            Rick Melick returned to keyboards, as Bonamassa traded the acoustic guitar for an electric Gigliotti axe. Joe began playing “Mountain Time,” as Melick lightly accompanied him on the electric piano. A couple of minutes into the song, Rojas and Bergman also returned to the stage, and the song built in intensity as Bonamassa’s soaring vocals challenged the volume of his guitar’s metallic emanations, and Eric Johnson’s influence was hinted at in the style that the song was delivered in. The band jammed until it reached maximum volume and intensity and it seemed as if the drums were simulating 105 howitzer detonations as Joe’s guitar screamed into the stratosphere. As the song concluded, to thunderous applause, Bonamassa thanked the audience and walked off the stage with the rest of the band, only to be brought back a minute later.

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            “We’ve been on the road for 13 weeks now,” Bonamassa told the audience and thanked them for coming out to see him on a Wednesday night. He explained that a book was being written about the last 10 years of his career, and how he remembers playing to 10 people in a dive bar in upstate New York, after driving there in a beat up van. “It’s like a dream come true,” he told the crowd, “playing at the sold out Portland theater that holds 2,500 people.” Bonamassa began playing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire,” that he recorded on his Black Rock album, as the rest of the band joined in. When they finished the poetic melody, Joe’s guitar tech handed him a Gibson flying V that he donned for “Just Got Paid, as he walked to the theramin with his right arm extended over his head with the index finger pointing up. As he lowered his arm and pointed at the theramin rod it emitted a high pitched oscillating sound that Bonamassa began duplicating on his guitar as he walked away and began playing and singing “Well I just got paid today, got a pocket full of change…” Bonamassa and the band cooked the auditorium with their 10 minute jam that even included a short segment of another Bonamassa influence, when he segued into Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” for a brief interlude. At the songs conclusion, Bonamassa called out the names of the members of his band as they locked arms at the foot of the stage and took a bow, before turning and going back stage as the auditorium lights came on, to thunderous applause.


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Joe Bonamassa Interview December 4, 2011

By: Bob Gersztyn

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Joe Bonamassa is one of the hottest blues/rock guitaritst/singer/songwriters on the scene today. Since his debut in 2000 Bonamassa has come a long ways, through relentless touring and by releasing 17 albums. As a child prodigy he was opening shows for B. B. King at the age of 12 and has recently graced the covers of Guitar Player and Blues Review as the leading generation X blues axe man of the 21st century. Billboard Magazine called him the #1 Blues Artist of 2010 and in 2011 he released Dust Bowl, which was recorded in Santorini, Greece. Blueswax contributing editor, Bob Gersztyn caught up with Joe in between gigs during his final U.S. appearances, prior to the holidays and a tour of Europe the first half of 2012. They talked about the new album and some of the influences that have impacted Joe thus far.


Bob Gersztyn: How did you decide on the mix of songs that you used for Dust Bowl?

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Joe Bonamassa: On a lot of these things you start out with a concept, and then sometimes you kind of bail on them as the record kind of shapes up and the thing is more so than anything we had a chance to record with Vince Gill and John Hiatt and I think some of the songs took shape because of that opportunity. There is no master plan with a chalk board room where you decide these concepts. It’s a weird thing when all of a sudden in the context of a “blues album,” and it’s a pretty liberal use of the term blues, it’s not a straight ahead blues record by any means. There’s Beth Hart, John Hiatt, Vince Gill and Glen Hughes on the same record, but it all seems to kind of work, as we kept going, finding songs, or I would write something, and it just kind of went from there.


Bob: “Tennessee Plates” is a John Hiatt (Dave Porter) composition and it’s not the first time you’ve covered John Hiatt (“I Know A Place” on Black Rock), what is it that you like about his songs?


Joe: There’s something about the lyrics that he writes that are really deep. He’s like the ultimate I wish I thought of that, and then you are saying wow, what a great song, what a great concept, what a great lyric, man I wish that I had thought of that. John’s a super nice guy and he just came to the Beacon theater. We did 2 nights at the Beacon theater, and we recorded it, in New York. We invited 3 guests to come and one was John, and the other was Beth Hart and then the great Paul Rogers. So at the end John came out and we did “I Know A Place” from Black Rock, and then he did one of his new songs, from his new record with the 4 of us. It’s called Down And Around My Place. If you listen to the lyrics of it, it’s like poetry, it’s on the level of like Leonard Cohen, because it’s just poetry set to music, and it’s wonderful. I have an affinity for John Hiatt songs, and I’m not the only one, his stuff has been by everybody, and rightfully so, because it’s just a wonderful wealth of American music. John is great, he’s a total legend and a total star, and I was really honored to work with him on the album and DVD.


Bob: Yeah, John really is a poet. I’ve seen him perform a couple of times. He was at the Waterfront Blues Festival a few years ago with the North Mississippi All Stars backing him up.


Joe: John is like a troubadour. He could be with the North Mississippi All Stars or have his own killer band, or does acoustic shows with Lyle Lovett. It’s just like himself and Lyle Lovett, and everything works. It just all works.


Bob: Another question I had was about train imagery in songs. The first song on Dust Bowl is Why are trains in the imagery of so many songs? From “500 Miles” and “Casey Jones” to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and a plethora of other blues and folk songs?

Joe Bonamossa

Joe: To put it in the context of our world, Kevin (Shirley) came in one day, when we were in the studio and he said, “you know Joe, you need a song about a train, all blues artists have songs about trains. So pick a key and let’s just start a song, a vamp, but we’ll start it like a freight train would start, so slow, and then slowly get going.” And that’s how the whole thing started and lyrically, I put the lyrics on afterwards. This may sound cliché’s but I just kind of like wanted to write my train song. It was more kind of like tongue and cheek. “You call yourself blues Bonamassa, but you don’t have a song about a train. No self respecting blues man would play the blues without having a song about a train, and it’s a real star, live, it comes off like the Jeff Beck Group, and that’s what it kind of sounds like to me, early Jeff Beck group stuff, and that’s cool. It think that it’s a really cool song and I knew as soon as it went down in the studio in one take that it was a real star, and we’ll be playing this live, until nobody wants to come see me anymore.


Bob: And then the next song, “Dust Bowl” continues with that chugging train sound.


Joe: That was like the spaghetti western. So it was a one, two punch where we had to check off two of the things, a spaghetti western and a song about a train. It was little Duane Eddy king of stuff.


Bob: The title Dust Bowl immediately brought to my mind John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Have you ever read it?

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Joe: That was kind of the whole concept of it. It was the Steinbeck reference of it and the other thing was, how sometimes you get into your own little world and you feel like you’re in this pressure cooker where there is a constant tornado. I was feeling that way when I was writing, because I was really under the gun to write and produce some stuff, and I looked outside the windows of the studio and it was like a dust storm, like the wind had kicked up, because it was very arid, where we were recording in Santorini, Greece and it was a dust bowl.


Bob: While you were in Greece did you visit Athens and the Parthenon?


Joe: Santorini is an island about an hour flight off the coast of Greece, but I’ve played in Athens several times and it’s a fantastic gig and we had really great fans there, just smoking. So that was cool, but I have not seen the Parthenon, other than flying over it when we were arriving. I really wanted to, but on show dates you’re really under the gun. But Santorini is where the lost city of Atlantis is supposed to have been before the volcano took it out.


Bob: That’s even better than the Parthenon. Your popularity and that of the blues, in Greece and other parts of the world is phenomenal. I mean there are blues bands in Poland and Australia and it’s crazy the way it’s spread around the world.


Joe: It really is a universal language, because when you start a slow blues song in any country in the world, people cheer. You know what I mean? It’s such a universal language. It’s just one of those things where you just go, my god, you know? We do a song called “Blues Deluxe” and I can start that in Moscow, and they go, “oh cool,” or you can start it in Phoenix, which is where I’m at now, and they go “oh cool.” It’s like the difference in climates and cultures are from the American Southwest to the capitol of Russia, and for some reason that kind of music speaks to everybody on some kind of level, and it’s no different when you play Greece or Turkey or Israel or Australia or India. It’s that kind of thing. It’s a very cool thing, overall.

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Bob: It is amazing the way that blues has traveled around the world. I met someone who had a blues band in Paris a few years ago. With the worldwide impact that the blues has had, how would you describe what the blues is to a musical novice?


Joe: Blues has a different definition to a lot of different people. I can tell you what my definition is it’s everything from Zeppelin to the late great Hubert Sumlin. I just got a text before I called you. I guess Hubert died today or something.


Bob: He did?

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Joe: It’s even on my website now. He was a sweetheart too. I guess it was heart failure, but it’s now just starting to come out.


Bob: I just saw B. B. King a couple of weeks ago and I can’t believe that he’s still playing.


Joe: Plus he’s 86 now, right?


Bob: Yeah, he just had his birthday about a month ago.


Joe: He’ll never stop! There are 2 constants in this world, that the sun will rise and B. B. King will do a gig.


Bob: You called B. B. King the possible connecting point between blues and rock. Why?


Joe: He is mutually agreed upon that not only is he the king of the blues but he defines the genre. I hear B. B. King in Iron Maiden songs. I hear B. B. King in Zeppelin songs. I hear B. B. King in all kinds of music. Kanye West with some of that stuff that is more bluesy. Moby, I mean like that guy. I think that he sampled some of B. B’s singing, and it’s a connecting point because, it’s like one of those things you know that if you don’t feel B. B. King, then chances are the blues are not for you. If you listen to live at the Regal, and you go this doesn’t do it for me, then chances are, the genre of the blues isn’t your bag. Which is fine, but I think to me it’s like when you ask anyone about B. B. King, whether they play heavy metal music or they’re a rapper or a straight up hard rock guitar player, they go, yeah, B. B. King, he’s the king, and it’s mutually agreed upon, and everyone has listened to a B. B. King song and has gotten something from it. That’s my theory.


Bob: Taking guitar players, and since you already named B. B. King, who are your all time top 3 guitar players of any genre and why?


Joe: Of any genre? The 2 Eric’s, Eric Johnson, Eric Clapton and probably B. B. King. Those are probably the guys that I look up to the most, as far as their careers and the music and just the way that they carry themselves. One of my favorite guitar players of all time is Jeff Beck and Paul Kossoff and Peter Green and Rory Gallagher. I met Jeff a couple of times and he was super cool. I wasn’t alive when Paul Kossoff was alive and I never got to meet Rory Gallagher, but I respect their music to the umpteenth degree. Fantastic! I have so many guitar players that I look up to, but those are probably the ones that come up in conversation the most.


Bob: You named Jeff Beck and I read how you were influenced by Rod Stewart’s first solo album from 1969, after he and Ron Wood left the Jeff Beck Group to join the then Small Faces. An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down is a great album – I saw Stewart perform it with the Faces in 1970.


Joe: It was essentially the Jeff Beck group, sans Jeff Beck, with Ronnie Wood playing guitar and Mick Waller and I think it was Ronnie Lane playing bass. It was very incestuous.

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Bob: Okay, but exactly how did Rod Stewart influence you? I once read an interview with Rod Stewart where he said that he modeled his singing style after Sam Cooke.


Joe: Yeah, and you can hear a lot of that, well one of Rod’s biggest songs was “Having A Party.” Rod Stewart’s music, just in general, take the voice off the table for just a second, just the way he was able to do the heavy blues rock, but with the acoustic element in it. So that acoustic guitar was very strong so he was very organic, almost an Americana feel to it, but it was all these British guys doing it. And then when he sang it was just unbelievable, I mean he had just had such a soaring soulful voice. It’s like listen to “Let Me Love You Baby,” from the “Jeff Beck Group” or “Old Man River.” Serious stuff. Serious stuff.


Bob: Who are some of your other influences for songwriting and performing besides the people you’ve already named?


Joe: I think that Warren Haynes is a big influence on me, songwriting wise, singing wise. I think Paul Rogers is a big influence on me, singing wise, songwriting obviously. I think Chris Whitley is another one, the late great Chris Whitley and I even get into guys like Harry Connick Jr. who made a couple of records that were really New Orleans based. Some of his jazz, big band stuff, and just the way that he puts melodies together, and lyrics and stuff like that. Really cool stuff. I’m an equal opportunity thief. I’ll take a good idea from anybody.


Bob: How would you describe your approach to playing guitar philosophically, emotionally and technically?

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Joe: I don’t really know. At this point, I just pick up the thing and play. I just pick it up and play. My theory is I give 100% of whatever percentage that I have. If I’m not feeling great and I’m going out there with 60%, then I’ll give 100% of the 60%. And that’s my philosophy as I play. There’s some night’s when we’re out for 10 ½ almost 11 weeks, here, and your hands are tired, everything is tired, your voice is tired, but you give 100% of it, and people will understand if you make a bad note, or your voice squeaks once or a couple of times during the gig. When they see you’re giving it your all, in some ways make people actually think it’s cool, then if it’s just a gig by numbers. Like you make it look too easy. Some of the gigs that I think go really well, like I feel like I’m playing really well and singing and people say, yeah it was okay. Then other nights where I think that I was like struggling a little bit, are the one’s that mean the most to people, and you’re going, I just don’t get it. I start thinking of it from the pundits point of view, well you know what? They can see, they can sense the struggle and they can see that you’re fighting a little bit, but you’re giving it your all. That kind of is more endearing than not breaking a sweat. That’s kind of like my theory.


Bob: Before we conclude the interview I wanted to ask you if Vince Gill brought Amy (Amy Grant, Gospel music Hall of Fame superstar spouse) along?


Joe: No he did not. She had to watch the kids.


Bob: That would be interesting to have her on the album too.


Joe: Yeah, she’s great. What a singer she is. It’s a talented family. It’s a very talented family.


My last question is, why do you feel that it is important for the legacy of the blues to be taught to future generations?


Joe: At the end of the day, for me, it’s 60%, going if you don’t teach the next generation about this music, will there still be a genre? Will there still be people playing it in a hundred years? That’s like 60% of my concern. Then on the other hand, in terms of our situation, if we don’t have new fans coming to the gigs, 20 or 30 years from now, will we be able to do gigs? And you have to kind of cultivate that now. You have to start early and go into schools or do these public service announcements or whatever and just go, hey listen kids, everyone likes Led Zeppelin. Everyone knows “Whole Lotta Love,” but do you know who Willie Dixon is and do you know who Robert Johnson is? Do you know where it all came from? Basically you kind of get in the door using something that they know, and then kind of plant the seed, hey there’s a lot more where that came from. It’s just a web. It opens up the world of this kind of music to a kid. Not all of them are interested and some people frankly could care less, but the ones that are interested that need just kind of a push, you know? Those are the ones that are going to make up the generation of fans that are going to come to gigs for the next 20, 30 40 years, and that’s important.


Bob: Okay, we’re all done. Are you playing tonight in Pheonix?


Joe: No, no, we’re off tonight. We’re doing 2 nights at the Orpheum Theater, here in Pheonix, and it’s great, both shows are sold out. I remember starting here in a little dive bar, called the Mason Jar, with like 3 people, but that was a decade ago.

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