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Q&A: Joe Bonamassa

The US blues-rock guitarist rhapsodises on the support he's received from the genre's masters, and on the birth of Black Country - his group with ex-Deep Purple vocalist/bassist Glenn Hughes.

For someone still in his early 30s, Joe Bonamassa has achieved a remarkable amount. At the age of 12 the guitar virtuoso opened a show for legendary blues star BB King. He released his first album when barely 17, a self-titled record with the short-lived Bloodline, a band that also included the sons of jazz great Miles Davis and Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. Since then Bonamassa has carved out his own niche as a solo performer, putting out a string of solo albums which have earned him the acclaim of an expanding army of fans and also the respect of his peers and mentors. Now he’s preparing for what is likely to be the biggest year of his career. Not only is Black Rock the ninth studio album in little over a decade, but he’s also involved with new supergroup Black Country, alongside bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, keyboard player Derek Sherinian and drummer Jason Bonham. You have to wonder where he finds the time to do any of those necessary daily functions like sleep or eat. But, as he explains, for him there’s just no substitute for playing music.

You have a new album, Black Rock, coming out towards the end of March. How do you keep the edge when you seem to be constantly on the album-tour-album treadmill?              

Well, I had to get into the mind-set of being 18 years old again. After everything we did with the last album [2009’s The Ballad Of John Henry], culminating in getting the chance to headline the Royal Albert Hall in London last year, I took a step back. And I said to myself: ‘Okay, suppose I’d never made a record. How would I approach this?’ I wanted to prove I still had the hunger and desire.

How do you know when you’ve actually done a good record? Is the reaction from fans a good indicator?                                             

Partly, of course. Then there’s also the fact that [producer] Kevin Shirley and I can look each other in the eye and say, with total honestly: “We’ve nailed this one!” But the most important person is my dad. He’s my biggest fan and also harshest critic. If he can listen to it and likes what he hears... man, I know I’m on the right road.

You’ve got the legendary BB King guesting on the new album. How did that come about?     

I’ve been fortunate enough to know Mr King for so long, but would never dare ask him to appear on one of my albums – this is an all-time great! But then I got to play on stage with Steve Winwood at a festival. We did [Traffic’s] The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys. That was such a thrill. Afterwards I felt confident enough to get up the courage and phone the man’s manager. I was so stoked when he agreed.

Unfortunately, when Mr King did his bits for the song, Night Life, I was on tour. So he went into a studio in Las Vegas, while I was in Luxembourg. But he did sign the lyric sheet and wrote me a letter. I’ve got them both framed.

You’ve got some interesting covers on the record, including Bobby Parker’s Steal Your Heart Away, which Led Zeppelin nearly covered for an album.                                           

And it was Robert Plant who suggested it to me. Apparently Zeppelin worked it up for their first album but never actually recorded it. But when someone like Robert makes a recommendation, you listen. So I went for the early Jimmy Page vibe on guitar. I dug out the Telecaster.                                                

The Black Country project - how did that happen?                                                  

Glenn Hughes and I have known each other for about two years. We’ve always talked about doing something together. But I really felt if it happened then this should be special, not just BonaHughes. What cemented it was when Glenn came on stage with me at the House Of Blues in Los Angeles. We did Medusa _[by Hughes’s old band Trapeze] and _Mistreated [Deep Purple]. That was such a thrill.

Kevin Shirley was in the audience and he thought it was incredible. He suggested Jason and Derek for the band, and before we knew it the four of us were in the studio working on five tracks.

Jason rather let the cat out of the bag by giving away all the details in an interview. Did that annoy the rest of the band? 

Not at all. We just thought, right, let’s get the album done now. To be honest, this has been so much fun. No pressure, just four guys enjoying themselves and working off each other. To me this sounds like a big rock record. It’s not just an amalgamation of what we’ve all been known for in the past, but something different.

Do you get to sing at all?

Very little. Why would I, with Glenn there? It’s like working with Gordon Ramsay and making your own salad. What is the point? I’ll tell you what we have done – a version of Medusa. And I got to play [late Trapeze member] Mel Galley’s guitar. That was incredible. But I don’t know whether it will make the album. It depends how everything comes out.

Will Black Country tour at all?

It’s down to how our individual schedules work out. But first let’s get the album done and released. We’ll take it from there.

Do you ever have the fear that you’ll wake up one day and it’ll all have been a dream? 

Oh, sure. Sometimes I find it hard to believe everything that has happened to me, all the great people I have been privileged to work with. I just feel so lucky. There are so many better guitarists than me, and that’s not false modesty. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, because there are those who, for whatever reason, actually feel I have a talent worth nurturing. I like to think I haven’t let them down.

If it all went wrong tomorrow, then I’d look back and feel grateful to have had the opportunity to do so much. That’s why I’m determined to enjoy everything I do. It’s not about money or fame, it’s about having the best time you can possibly have, all of the time.

MEDUSA               

FIVE ARTISTS AND BANDS TO FEATURE BONAMASSA

  • Bloodline - his first band, released one self-titled album

  • Rock Candy Funk Party  - two albums so far

  • Joe Lynn Turner - Bonamassa plays on the singer's 2000 album Holy Man

  •  Beth Hart - the pair have done two albums to date

  •  Black Country Communion - three studio albums and out

                                                                                

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