Everyone in the house (except for that group of out-of-towners that never know when to shut up) is glued to Bonham’s music. He also alternates house band duty during the Noodle’s Wednesday night jams — a music crap shoot where in one evening, it could be inspired, hard-core blues or eight-minute solo fests of songs with the words “Mustang” or “Sweet Home” in them. Bonham held an acoustic jam at The Loading Dock for five years. From The Rathskellar to Insert Name of Bar on Whatever Side of Town, Gordon Bonham has played there — plugged or unplugged.
While this description sounds a tad muddy, what is clear is that Bonham is one of the most recognizable figures on the Indianapolis music scene.
Bonham is 46 but looks a decade younger. His long, straight, brown hair is trimmed for split ends and that’s about it. While many in his age group start swelling up like ballplayers relegated to Designated Hitter status, Bonham is thin. In spite of a career playing in smoky bars and grills, his food of choice is grilled and healthy instead of fried. Sweating it out on stage for hours a night with a guitar slung around your body has something to do with it, too.
Bonham was born and raised in upstate Hammond, attended Hammond High School and later Wabash College. The first record he ever bought was Don McLean’s American Pie. Bonham was hanging out in jazz clubs at 16 and spent a lot of time and money at S&J Records in Hammond (“Three LPs for 10 bucks”).
NUVO sat down with him in between recent sets for his side group, Soul Bus, and one of his acoustic shows to discuss a life in the blues, his Texas connections and guitarists who scare him.
NUVO: Who was the first blues musician you noticed?
Bonham: I was a big Clapton fan as a kid. I remember when I realized that Derek and The Dominoes was Eric Clapton. I think I was in eighth grade. “Layla” was on the radio and I started playing guitar at 14. I read that Clapton listened to B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert King and Freddie King. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf soon followed. So I started buying their records.
Freddie King had a Texas thing, even though he was from Chicago. Then I got that first Fabulous T-Birds record in ’78 and that’s where I really got the bug for the Texas sound. I had more of a Chicago thing at the time. When I heard Jimmy Vaughan go [imitates guitar doing Texas shuffle], it’s my favorite thing to do every night.
That’s why I play with a harmonica player. I thought about getting keyboards or horns and doing an uptown sound, but you can’t play those junky shuffles in E without a harmonica.
At age 20, Bonham was a member of The Parker Brothers (“It was three brothers named Parker”), a pop/rock band which did Who and Rolling Stones covers. The band let Bonham take the mic and play “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “Worried Life Blues,” both songs recently recorded at the time by Eric Clapton.
NUVO: How did the crowd react to your blues playing?
Bonham: Back in 1978, people dug it, I guess. I remember once we got reviewed by a magazine called Night Rock News and it said, “Bonham is an adept guitar player, but he sounds like another guy trying to sound like Eric Clapton.” He was criticizing me but I thought it was the best compliment in the world. I don’t play anything like Clapton now.
The first T-Birds record and Hollywood Fats were the only white bands that were doing great blues in the mid to late ’70s. When SRV’s debut, Texas Flood, was released in 1983, Bonham immediately learned “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Tell Me” and “Texas Flood” before heading to his first Chicago blues jam.
NUVO: Where did you jam?
Bonham: It was at a place called Muddy Waters on the south side of Chicago. I played those and “Hideaway” and a couple other songs. It was first called Muddy Waters and then the next time I played there it was called Froggie’s. Somebody got stabbed in the parking lot with a screwdriver. So they changed the name so nobody would associate it with this murder. I went there often and played. I also went every Sunday to B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. Magic Slim (and the Teardrops) was the host. It was great, real loose. If there weren’t a whole lot of people there, he wouldn’t play. This was when John Primer was in the band. Real cool. I went to the Checkerboard a few times. There was one light bulb above the stage.
Like many aspiring musicians, Bonham lived in his parents’ basement and worked for a landscaping company as a day job. A life change happened in 1984 with a road trip to Bloomington.
Bonham: I went there for the weekend and just stayed. I was in a band two weeks later called Little Harold and the Home Wreckers. I’ll never forget this. On May 13, 1984, at a place called Oscars, we opened for John Lee Hooker. I remember him telling the bartender, “I don’t want no college boys back here. Just women.” I wound up opening for Hooker three more times. [Bonham recently opened and was the back-up band for Bo Diddley at the Vogue on May 13.] That band lasted for a few months.
NUVO: Then what?
Bonham: Then I left to join a road band that was a nine-piece with horns. We did Southside Johnny, Springsteen, stuff like that. I stayed with them for six months. It was too many guys and we couldn’t make any money. So I went back to the Home Wreckers. This was a real rockabilly roots rock blues band. We did The Leroi Brothers’ whole first record and they thought we were the coolest thing in the world. We went off and on until the band fell apart.
NUVO: What happened next?
Bonham: Then I formed my first blues power trio called The Genuine Lizard Band. I wound up with several rhythm sections. It was then that I really learned how to play guitar because there was no one but me. It was three sets of guitar all night.
NUVO: What were you playing?
Bonham: No original stuff back then. I was doing the Blues Top 40. Some of the same stuff I do now. It’s a top 40 for blues purists. “Who’s Been Talkin’,” “Long Distance Call,” all the Muddy and Buddy Guy stuff. The Genuine Lizard Band started to evolve. I pitched to the Bluebird a blues jam. It lasted 10 years. After a year at the Bluebird, I started a jam at the Patio, which Gene Deer took over when I went to Texas. It was from those jams that I met Hal [Yeagy, owner of the Slippery Noodle Inn].
NUVO: Around this time, you moved to Austin, Texas.
Bonham: I moved there to play with Gary Primich. He played the Hooker gig in Bloomington and went to school at IU. He was from Gary, so we were both from The Region. He auditioned me. They were looking for a new guitar player in this band called The Mannish Boys. It was all a big secret. I went down and they hired me. So I moved to Austin. Stevie had just moved away from Austin to get away from his drug buddies. I lived three blocks from Jimme Vaughan. I’d see him in his yard all the time. I used to jog by his house on purpose just to get a sighting. He had a white Camero. I rented a house from Marcia Ball, from her husband.
NUVO: When did you move back to Indiana?
Bonham: In February of 1990. Two weeks after I moved back, my friend Tom called me to see if I got all those messages and I said, “What messages?” “Marcia Ball’s been calling. She wants you to audition for her.” But I had already moved back here. I often thought if I had gotten those messages, what would my life be like?
I decided I wanted to front my own band. I was broke and bored. I tried writing songs. Then I kept coming back to Bloomington, but I got a Wednesday night gig at C.T. Peppers. Then I got offered Gordon’s Friday Jam at the Bluebird in Bloomington. That lasted a couple years. I started a band called Gordon Bonham and the Kings of Rhythm, which lasted several years. Yes, we ripped the name off from Ike Turner.
Gordon Bonham and the Kings of Rhythm later became known as The Cooler Kings, featuring Stuart Norton (guitar, vocals, harmonica), Rick Bole (drums) and Greg Lindholm (bass). The band released a self-titled album for Slippery Noodle Sound in 1994.
Bonham’s solo band debut, Low Down And Blue (Slippery Noodle Sound), was released in 1998. That same year, he put out his own solo acoustic album, Get Back Home. He’s gearing up for another blues double feature.
NUVO: When will we see the next Gordon Bonham album?
Bonham: The goal is to have the band record out by Labor Day. I want it ready for Penrod [leans into tape recorder], which is the Best Gig of the Year. I’ll put it on tape. We will have a record out by Labor Day. I’ll probably do a solo acoustic record right after it. It happened the last time I recorded. When I’m recording, I’m thinking, “This is cool, but I want to do this, too. Record a bunch of stuff and make two records.”
NUVO: What will be on the album?
Bonham: There will probably be some covers. I haven’t heard a lot of original new blues that I like. I’m not sure if I can write any that I like, either. I may cover some classics. I’ve got half a dozen things written. We thought about doing a live band record. We play so much live, that’s more of what we sound like than we’ll ever sound in a studio. It may be a live record for all I know and throw in a couple of new songs that I’ll write. I’d like more ragtime tunes or Piedmont blues. Sometimes we’ll do a band acoustic/electric night. We haven’t done that in a while, but that requires me to bring out twice as much stuff.
On Monday nights, Bonham’s on stage at Daddy Jack’s, not as a bandleader, but part of the leaderless cover band Soul Bus. This anti-supergroup also features soul/blues singer Tad Robinson and singer/songwriter Jes Richmond. The band plays nothing but covers with a couple SB originals. Bonham has been playing many of the band’s blues tunes, but prefers rockin’ out to Neil Young, CCR or, if you ask him, the Johnny Rivers epic “Secret Agent Man” and the surfer gem “Pipeline.”
The term anti-super group means big-name players with no ego getting in the way. Soul Bus turns 2 years old this summer and already has lasted longer than Blind Faith and Damn Yankees. When it comes to Monday nights in Indianapolis, searching for live music is a challenge. The Soul Bus gang unwinds from their regular musical duties to play whatever the hell they want. Of course, if someone drops a 50 in the bucket ...
NUVO: How has the Soul Bus experience been?
Bonham: It’s fun because every night we do different stuff. We often have major train wrecks that we try to hide. [Laughs] One thing about doing a gig this long is that you develop a crowd and you can’t really go wrong. Originally, it was going to be a soul band, thus the name. But now, we’re more like a folk rock band, which I’m very happy with. I just like strummy, twangy folk rock. Jeff told everybody to bring three, four songs that they’ve always wanted to do. I brought a couple songs by The Band like “Up On Cripple Creek” and a couple Jimmy Reed songs like “Big Boss Man.” A different shuffle that my band might not do. And some Neil Young.
NUVO: One of the Soul Bus benefits is that nobody has to play bandleader.
Bonham: I don’t ever have to bring a PA, but they have me doing lights, though. [Laughs] I don’t have to choose the songs. I don’t have to sing all the songs. I’m just there to play. I don’t have to think. I’ve gotten down to singing maybe two, three songs a night. What’s great is that Jes [Richmond] might say, “Do a shuffle,” and I can say, “No, I did 20 of those last night,” and it’s OK. Then we do “Who’ll Stop The Rain” or “Dead Flowers” or “Down By the River.” This is a lot of styles that I played with The Raging Texans years and years ago.
NUVO: Soul Bus also brings out the fans of the individual players to mingle in with the Northsiders winding down with macanudos, merlots and martinis after a long Monday.
Bonham: It’s good to see people liking both hats. I’ve had folks I see at the Noodle come up here and the other way around. I’ve had people say, “Soul Bus is OK, but I like your band better,” and there are people who will only come to see Soul Bus. Of course, I think it’s neat to do both.
NUVO: What do you listen to at home?
Bonham: I still put on Junior Wells and B.B. King. There are certain artists I won’t listen to because I’ll get so wrapped up in it, I won’t be able to play that night. T-Bone Walker is one. If I listen to T-Bone Walker, I won’t be able to play my guitar that night. He has such a unique sound and I’ll find myself trying to go to those places. No one can do that like he does. Jimmie Vaughan is still my favorite new guitar player. People revere the blues players who are really young or really old. The Kenny Wayne Shepherds and the John Lee Hookers. Everybody in the middle has to wait out their time.
NUVO: In the blues world, you’re still a young’un at 46. White blues guitar players of your generation were compared to Eric Clapton. Nowadays, if a white kid even looks at a guitar, he’s dubbed the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Bonham: I don’t want to be in the camp of SRV complainers. I love him. I listen to him in my car. There is this tendency that people think that’s the way blues is supposed to sound and I don’t particularly care to hear that. He did it great, but I don’t want to hear anybody else do it. A lot of the new guys have that sound. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Monster Mike Welch, but he’s a little different.
We all like to bemoan the fact that everybody thinks the blues is SRV. I love SRV, I saw him 10 times in one year. Four times in two days at Chicago Fest. It was right after Texas Flood came out. Ironically, I heard about him from his work with David Bowie [Let’s Dance]. I had that record and thought it was pretty cool. One day I heard “Pride & Joy” on the radio. To hear a shuffle in E on mainstream radio! This was what I was playing at home. It opened everything up for me.
I like Anson Funderburg. He’s one of those people who scare me. He’s so understated. I get mad when I see him play. He’s so cool and he never breaks out of character. I’ve seen him make one mistake in the half dozen times I’ve seen him. Nobody noticed. I saw him smile because he knew it. He’s flawless and amazing to watch. He’s a big role model for me because of my band.
In the last six months, when we play a Texas shuffle in E, everyone dances. In Indiana, that’s a real coup. In Houston and even in Louisville, people dance to a shuffle in E. That’s the rhythm section locking in and the people, they have to dance. You go see Anson, he plays shuffles all night and the people dance the whole time. Everyone dances but the guitarists who are watching him.
NUVO: Do you mind the title of “blues musician”?
Bonham: I’m a blues musician who likes a lot of music instead of the other way around. I love to play Neil Young, but first and foremost, I’m a blues player.
NUVO: You’re one of several ambassadors of the blues located in the Circle City. Folks who wouldn’t know Sonny Boy Williamson from Sonny Liston have popped their blues cherry to your music.
Bonham: It’s real flattering, but I’ve had dozens of people say, “You’re the first guy I saw play blues back in 1988 at the Bluebird,” and now they’re some yuppie businessman or they’re drunk at the Noodle at 2 in the morning. “I used to see you when I was in college. You were real cool and thanks for introducing me to the blues.” If I did one good thing in my life, it’s that.
Matthew Socey is the host of The Blues House Party, Saturdays, 9-11 p.m. on 90.1 WFYI FM.