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The Arts

Alive and kicking, a bluesman who’s no ordinary Joe

The kind of gentle career arc that once let musicians slowly expand their circle of influence through years of touring now seems so quaint and old-fashioned it could feature on one of those I Heart the 70s TV shows. Nowadays, if getting a song on an advert and carpet-bombing the media doesn’t shift the required number of units, an emerging artist will quickly find themselves on a very sticky wicket indeed.

Joe Bonamassa, however, didn’t get the memo. A child prodigy who had been playing guitar professionally since the age of 12, over the past 10 years Bonamassa has built a hugely successful career from the floorboards up. Without troubling the glossy magazine supplements or TV schedulers, without any hint of a hit single or prime-time radio play, Bonamassa’s tenth album, Black Rock, released earlier this year went Top 15 in the UK and Top 40 in the States.

At 33, he has become a hit entirely on his own terms. The secret is simple: hard work and a relentless touring schedule that has seen him play 150-200 dates annually for the past few years.

“I like to say we went out 10 years ago and bought the grass seed,bought some tools,leveled the ground and put the seeds in,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles. “There was a drought for a couple of summers and nothing grew, then slowly buy surely it started happening.”

Born and raised in New York state, Bonamassa’s parents ran a guitar shop and by the age of seven he was playing along note-for-note with his dad’s Eric Clapton records. Inspired by Peter Green, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore, he describes himself as an “American kid doing a British blues interpretation”. He sings and writes as well as rebooting old standards.

The connection to British blues-based rock is made even more explicit by his new side project. Earlier this year Bonamassa formed Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, bassist and vocalist in various incarnations of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath; Jason Bonham son of Led Zeppelin drummer John; and Dream Theater’s Derek Sherinian. The four came together at the suggestion of Bonamassa’s producer Kevin Shirley and released their debut album, Black Country Communion, last month. It made its debut at 13 in the UK album charts.

“It’s exhilarating to play with those guys, everybody really swings a heavy bat so you just hold on for the ride,” says Bonamassa. He proves to be something of a connoisseur of Scotland, raving about a pub in Edinburgh’s High Street which serves “the finest haggis I’ve ever had”, which is not an endorsement, I can ever recall BB King making. His affection is partly attributable to familiarity: having traversed the country several times, the UK, and in particular Scotland, embraced his music much earlier then his homeland. “I remember playing my first gig in Scotland at the Ferry in Glasgow to about  45 people, and the next time we played in the city there were 700 people” he says.

The other reason for his enthusiasm is that he’s currently romancing Sandi Thom, whom he describes as “one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard, she’s incapable of singing out of tune. Sandi taught me a lot about Scottish culture. This is a woman who tears up at Braveheart.”

Thom’s last album, Merchants and Thieves, featured a guest cameo from Bonamassa, whose influence was instrumental in inspiring her new,bluesy direction. The favours have been mutual. Aside from passing on a taste for haggis and fanciful historical films, the difficulties Thom has experienced in trying to escape the fallout of her first, hugely successful but much-derided single, I wish I was a punk rocker (with flowers in my hair), has made Bonamassa count his blessings.

“I’m thankful that I never had a hit song,” he says. “Obviously there are some tunes that are fans’ favorites, but I’m blessed that none of them are at any risk of being played on Radio 1 or American radio. If someone offered me a hit single and three magic beans, I’d take the magic beans.”

2011 will be a busy year with a new solo album, some Black Country Communion shows, and his traditional omnipresence on the road. “We make records as a means to play live, and we play live as a means to make records,” he says.

“That’s the music business of 2010. I take nothing for granted. One of the greatest compliments I can get from a fan is, ‘I really like your record but I really preferred it live.’ That means I’ve done my job.”

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