Blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa tells Michael Wood how the pressures of touring have led to a more refined, mature approach.
Blues musician Joe Bonamassa may hail from America, home of the blues, but his biggest influences are, he insists, mostly from this side of the pond.
“My first introduction to the blues was the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth record,” he reveals, before name-checking the likes of John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, early Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Irishman Rory Gallagher.
“It was more dangerous, louder. They kicked ass,” the guitarist and singer/songwriter explains. “It was one of those things where, to me, it was the most extraordinary eye-opener.
“American blues was much more subdued. The English were really amping it up.”
Partly in homage to these early influences, he has, in recent years, spent much of his time recording and performing with Anglo-American supergroup Black Country Communion, named after the West Midlands industrial heartland from where both bassist Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham come. Rounding out the group is fellow American keyboard player Derek Sherinian.
“It’s no coincidence that our first gig was at the Wolverhampton Civic,” says Bonamassa. “It really is an English band. It’s steeped in English rock.”
When he visits Birmingham’s NIA this spring, however, it will be as a solo performer on the back of last year’s album Dust Bowl, a characteristic slice of driving blues rock, the title of which seems to say as much about his state of mind at the time, as the historic travails of his homeland.
It was, he readily admits, “a tough one” to make. In his sleeve notes, he describes his life at the time as “a Dust Bowl - a whirlwind of concerts, self-doubt and a tour schedule that seemed almost unachievable”.
Nearly a year on from the album’s release, when Bonamassa calls me on a ropy phone line from his car somewhere in California, it sounds as if he is still trying to come to terms with what happened.
“The last three albums have been a struggle,” he says. “There’s a lot more going on and a lot less time to do everything,” he says. “Before, records didn’t seem so rushed. I don’t understand what the fire drill is all about.
“I have records that I made ten years ago that I had ten times more time to prepare for.”
Asked if it was outside pressure that was causing it, he merely says: “There are only 365 days a year. I can’t extend the calendar year. I will get over it.”
Despite the circumstances of the album’s inception, he believes it is among his best work to date.
“It’s the most collected record that I’ve done. It’s probably the writing – the lyrics are a little bit deeper,” he explains.
“I try to sing a song that means something to someone. If it connects with people, that’s really what you would strive for more than anything.”
With age has come an extra maturity, he believes.
“My playing’s definitely changed,” he says. “It’s got a bit more refined. It’s less reliant on over-the top guitar playing and more reliant on songs and singing. You are less reliant on getting by with a bunch of notes.”
Some of that change has been forced on him by the ageing process itself, the 34-year-old concedes.
“If the brain doesn’t agree, the body will do it for you,’ he explains. ‘I’m not the same person I was when I was 23. I don’t have the dexterity.”
Bonamassa is a fourth generation musician – his grandfather and great-grandfather played trumpet and his father played guitar – and he himself was given his first guitar at the age of four.
And at the age of 12, he opened for the great blues guitarist BB King.
“I was invited by a promoter to play at a festival and BB King was there and heard me play,” he recalls. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was one of those great life-changing moments. I played at a festival and I played right before him. That’s how our friendship started 23 years ago now.
“I’ve done shows with him. He has played on my records. He’s a huge champion behind the scenes. He has opened a lot of doors for me.”
In the years since, he has played with a who’s who of the guitar greats, including Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Stephen Stills, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Ted Nugent, Derek Trucks, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton.
“I have to say, at the end of the day, I have been able to play with most of my heroes,” he says.
“As we speak,” he tells me with more than a touch of childlike wonder in his voice, “we’re driving to Dave Mason’s – the guy from Traffic – to do some work with him. I’m extraordinarily lucky to have played with the best.”
Is there anyone he would like to have played with?
“I don’t have a list. I have gone through that list,” he replies. “Back in time, I would have loved to have played with Paul Kossoff (the Free guitarist who died the year before Bonamassa was born) but, of the living guitarists, generally, I have either shaken their hands or played with them.”
Musicians, apart, he insists that he isn’t into celebrity culture. In his album notes, he jokes that he needs to break off and “go hang with my famous friends at some exclusive Hollywood Hills party”, then confides that, “in actuality I am sitting here typing this and practising my guitar.”
“I have very little interest, other than playing here, in California. I know people who make a record or whatever once a decade and their whole life is based on who they are and what they are doing. In reality, they are doing very little. I’m just a normal dude. I don’t like my picture taken. I know it sounds like a strange thing to say, but I don’t think I’m a well-known anything. I just like to play my guitar.”
And long may it continue that way.
* Joe Bonamassa will be playing on March 31 at the NIA, King Edwards Road, Birmingham, 7.30pm, £30 to £50. Tel: 0844 338 8000. www.thenia.co.uk