Calling Joe Bonamassa a guitar god is not going out on a limb. In his career, he has amassed awards, charted #1 hits, and played some of the great halls around the world – all before hitting the age of 35. But if you wanted to go out on that limb, you might suggest that he achieved his godly status by the age of 12, which is when he first opened for Blues legend B.B. King. Well, that's arguable – I'm sure Bonamassa would not claim to have reached maturity as a musician while he was still in middle school. Still, for a kid who had already mastered Stevie Ray Vaughn and Hendrix by the age of seven and was playing clubs in New York at 11, it would be less of a stretch than you might think.
Bonamassa brings his stellar Blues-rock act to Louisville's Palace Theater Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 8:00 p.m., touring behind his latest studio release from earlier this year, Dust Bowl. By the time I spoke to Joe by phone, he had just wrapped up a tour with his other rock band, Black Country Communion, and was getting ready to release yet another project with soul singer Beth Hart. To say that he is a busy man is an understatement, and even over the phone, one gets the impression of someone burning with an almost manic energy, his thoughts moving far ahead of what he's actually able to articulate. When I mentioned his forthcoming stop in Louisville, he was full of memories from his last visit, which apparently featured an impromptu bourbon-tasting at the Seelbach bar.
"I swear between me and my guitar tech – we stood up from dinner, and were thinking, 'Man this is tough.' The next day, we were dragging." Bookers, Pappy Van Winkle, and company -- in one sitting -- will do that to you. He also remembered his visit to Guitar Emporium in the Highlands. As a bona fide gearhead and guitar collector, Bonamassa admits to having "northwards of 350" guitars.
"The collecting part of it is the joy of it, it's the disease, the absolute addiction of it. But that being said, it's functioning art. It brings me joy and hopefully that joy that it brings me is translated into my playing, which is translated to my records, and is part of my music – that's the way I look at collecting." One of his most prized possessions is a 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, which he compares to a modern-day Stradivarius.
And unlike many avid collectors of things, who lock up their treasures as investments or museum items, Bonamassa puts them to the use they were made for. Considering his multiple musical ventures, he may actually need that many guitars.
In addition to his Dust Bowl band (drummer Tal Bergman, bassist Carmine Rojas, and keyboardist Rick Melick), he formed Black Country Communion with Deep Purple's Glenn Hughes, drummer Joe (son of Led Zeppelin's John) Bonham, and keyboard player Derek Sherinian. They released their second album, simply called 2 in June, and are an ongoing concern, according to Bonamassa. And because two album releases in a single year, aren't enough, Bonamassa joined singer Beth Hart to release a record of soul covers called Don't Explain in September.
Bonamassa has spent, literally, his entire life pursuing music. He recalled that his very first guitar was a Christmas present from his dad, a short-scale electric Chiquita, when he was four. And, there was no turning back -- somehow, far from the Mississippi Delta, this boy from New Hartford, NY, became a world-class Blues musician. I asked Bonamassa if he ever wished that he'd spent more time as a kid playing basketball or chasing girls.
"I don't regret anything. I wouldn't change a thing about my life. There are a lot of people who aren't passionate about what they do…I'm one of the lucky people in the world that I'm so passionate about it and it's the way I actually earn my living." He takes this passion to heart by trying to ignite it in the next generation of kids through a program called Blues in the Schools, which was founded by the Blues Foundation in Memphis to preserve the heritage of Blues music through education. [Update: Joe has recently started his own 501(c)(3) program called Keeping the Blues Alive, which he promotes by visiting schools during his touring schedule to teach kids about the Blues.]
Bonamassa says it's like Career Day, and he tries to instill in the kids the idea that it's a job, a profession, and that concerts just don't happen when someone plugs in their guitar and the lights come up – it takes dedication and hard work. He also encourages them to explore all kinds of music for themselves, even if it's not blues. "Whether you like Blues or you don't like Blues, that's fine. But don't limit yourself to what you hear on television, or the radio. That's just an ankle-deep profile of what music is."
Bonamassa embraces the fact that as a solo artist, he can do anything he wants, but it's up to him to sell it. "As you get older, you become more confident as an artist. And with every record you make, you get better at it, just like anything else."
Tickets for the Nov. 15 show at 8 p.m. are $51.50 to $81.50, available from Live Nation.com.
Joe Bonamassa playing live at the Royal Albert Hall in London:
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