Part-time teacher spreading the blues

7-11-2010 Amsterdam, Carre'Joe Bonamassa, guitarist.'Copyright Paul Bergen
7-11-2010 Amsterdam, Carre'Joe Bonamassa, guitarist.'Copyright Paul Bergen

JOE Bonamassa is on a mission to evangelise. He’s not spreading the word of God, he’s not advocating veganism – he’s spreading the blues.

As the Mid-Western blues player, who now lives in LA, is about to embark on a full UK tour – with a hefty Sheffield show in the middle – he’s also juggling a part-time teaching role, visiting schools in the US to teach kids about the blues.

“The school stuff is called Blues in Schools and is about teaching kids about their blues heritage,” he says. “The thing is, in this country we don’t really appreciate the stuff we’ve accomplished.”

Bonamassa, like many rock blues musicians, discovered the blues in a roundabout way, via the British blues movement of the 1960s.

“I got into blues with British bands like the Jeff Beck Group and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers but a lot of people don’t know who Robert Johnson is. That’s why hip-hop is a good thing – it teaches kids something about their own heritage and it’s a good way of giving something cultural back to the community.”

But it doesn’t matter what music Bonamassa or his budding blues students are into, he says, as long as it’s music. “There’s a universal language to music. I’ve played in India and the audience was fabulous – I’ve played in Israel too and there were kids shouting along to the music. It doesn’t matter where you are.”

Throughout his time as a major artist Bonamassa’s experienced huge changes in the music industry, particularly the power shift from huge record labels to one-man bands.

“The computer and internet has completely changed my life for the better. It’s great for exposure but also it means that artists are no longer controlled by record company executives. Sites such as Facebook are great for keeping in touch with fans too.”

But Bonamassa’s latest record, Dust Bowl, is a long way from the internet-savvy world of Facebook and Twitter. It’s a collection of classic country blues, with tales of heartache and honky tonks.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South and I think that has influenced my music quite a lot,” says Bonamassa.

“I still listen to a lot of country music.”

But there’s another cultural influence at work in Bonamassa’s latest record – the British blues that turned him on to music in the first place.

“When I go to London I feel just as spiritually at home as I do in New Orleans,” he says. “I love Clapton and I dig what he does, I dig his phrasing and dig his tone. Other artists I love are Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Gary Moore – they’re fabulous.”

On Dust Bowl, John Hiatt contributes to one of the tracks. “That’s the beauty of being a solo artist – you can create a country song that’s supposed to be a blues song because it doesn’t matter, at the end of the day there are no rules.”

With Bonamassa’s prolific output, it’s not surprising to learn that he sees music as a “labour of love.” Not only does he work as a solo artist, he also plays in country blues rock band Black Country Communion. “We have some studio time booked – we’ll be bringing out a live film at some point.”

But for now, Bonamassa will have to put his ambitious studio plans on hold as he prepares to play at the Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, on Saturday.