Joe Bonamassa: Blues workhorse

The music never stops for New York bluesman

Photo by Arnie Goodman

Joe Bonamassa’s recently released concert CD, Beacon Theatre: Live From New York, isn’t advertised as a homecoming show, but in a very real sense, it was a return to his beginnings.

“That’s where I’m from,” Bonamassa said in a recent phone interview. “I grew up in upstate [New York], but I used to live in New York City about seven blocks from the Beacon Theatre. The Beacon Theatre is significant because when I was a kid and had no money, I was living in New York and I was on an $11-a-day, $13-a-day budget. There was a little bodega across the street from the Beacon Theatre, where I used to buy a lottery ticket because I thought that was my only ticket out of here. And I would buy a lottery ticket, peanut butter and jelly and Ramen noodles. You go by that marquee and you’d see everybody playing there, from Steely Dan to Pat Metheny to Spyro Gyra to the Allman Brothers for 10 nights. And it’s like man, can I ever make it there?

“When I was 22, 23 years old, that just seemed like insurmountable odds,” he said.

At age 22, Bonamassa, now 35, was already a recording artist, two albums into his career, having released A New Day Yesterday in 2000 and So, It’s Like That, in 2002. He was also being touted in some circles as the next great blues-based guitarist, having been mentored in his early teens by the late, great guitarist Danny Gatton and having opened some 20 shows for B.B. King at age 12.

He was also seven years removed from a stint in the group Bloodline, which released one album in 1995 before breaking up over musical differences.

But Bonamassa at that early point in his solo career knew that reaching a level where he could play the Beacon Theatre was possible, if he put in the work. And Bonamassa has been nothing if not a hard worker since then. He has just released another live CD/DVD, An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, which was recorded last summer on a rare outing in Europe with an all-star, all-acoustic backing band assembled for the tour.

The Beacon and Vienna live releases came on the heels of the May 2012 release of his latest studio CD, Driving Towards the Daylight. That CD marked his 10th studio album in a dozen years — to go along with three studio albums with his side group, Black Country Communion, and a 2011 CD called Don’t Explain, made with singer Beth Hart.

There was also one other DVD, Live From Royal Albert Hall, which was released in 2009.

That 2009 show at the famous London theater, Bonamassa said, was the moment when he proved himself as a solo artist and showed he was ready to shine in the spotlight.

“Albert Hall trained me for the big moment in a pretty substantial way,” Bonamassa said. “My whole career was basically riding on that night. It could have flopped and they would have said well, he’s just a blues guitar player out of his depth. Fair enough.”

Bonamassa stepped up to the plate at the Royal Albert Hall, and now on the Beacon DVD, he looks confident and in command of the stage — a feeling he said grew out of that 2009 concert.

“In 2009, you could see I was still struggling to figure out who I was,” Bonamassa said. “But now you’re just going, this is who I am and I’m not making any apologies.”

On his studio releases, Bonamassa has shown steady growth, particularly over his previous half-dozen albums.

With Driving Towards Daylight, Bonamassa focuses on his blues roots and makes a confident statement about how he is carving out an identity within this seminal music genre.

Bonamassa is back on tour this spring, playing in his usual mostly electric format. But fans can look for much more music from him yet this year. There will be a CD, We Want Groove, by his funk-oriented side project, Rock Candy Funk Party. This summer, he will record four shows at four different London venues, with each show covering a different part of his career. Assuming all goes as planned, they will be released as a multi-DVD set to form a live career retrospective. Then in January 2014, he plans to record his next studio album.

In the midst of all of this activity, he has a second album with Hart on the way.

“It’s been a real joy to see the effect it’s had on her personal solo career,” Bonamassa said of Don’t Explain. “So we’re doing that [second album] and then we’re recording all four shows in London as a DVD and as a record, four different bands, four different set lists. It’s going to be crazy.”

Joe Bonamassa plays the Bellco Theatre Tuesday, April 23. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $75. 700 14th St., Denver, 303-228-8000.