Blues Warrior

Though some proclaim Blues a dying art form, Joe Bonamassa’s massive success proves otherwise

click to enlarge Joe Bonamassa says his first headlining show at legendary Colorado venue Red Rocks — which drew nearly 10,000 people — was a victory, not just for him but also for the Blues in general.
Joe Bonamassa says his first headlining show at legendary Colorado venue Red Rocks — which drew nearly 10,000 people — was a victory, not just for him but also for the Blues in general.

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uitarist/singer Joe Bonamassa says his new DVD/album, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, captures a concert that will always stand out as a highlight of his musical life.

Some of his memories involve the sheer enjoyment Bonamassa got from playing with the all-star band he assembled for the show last summer. But what also stood out about the Red Rocks performance — the first time the bluesman had played that spectacular outdoor Colorado amphitheater near Denver — was what the show meant for Blues as a genre.

“Well, the thing about Red Rocks, it was a great night for the Blues. I mean, almost 10,000 people showed up for it,” Bonamassa says, noting that fans had been given little explanation about what to expect from the concert. “It was a real momentum shift. Like Blues can carry the amphitheater. I can’t lie, it was a big night for me personally, (but even more) it was a big night for the Blues, to prove a concept. There are 10,000 people that will come out to see a Blues gig. People always write off the Blues, but there you go: There’s your 10,000 people.”

The Muddy Wolf concert at Red Rocks came in the midst of a busy 2014 for Bonamassa that included the release of his 12th studio album, Different Shades of Blue, and extended tours of the states and Europe, during which Bonamassa played an opening acoustic set with one band and a full headlining electric set with another.

To prepare for the Red Rocks show, Bonamassa and his producer, Kevin Shirley, first chose a selection of songs from the catalogs of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, two of Blues music’s greatest legends who became cornerstone artists for the famous Chicago-based blues label, Chess Records. The show was structured to feature one set of Waters’ tunes and one set of Wolf’s songs, followed by a half-hour encore of material from Bonamassa’s own catalog.

The guitarist and producer chose a few signature songs (Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and Wolf’s “Spoonful” and “Killing Floor”), but for the most part emphasized less obvious choices from their respective catalogs.

“We kind of dove a little deeper into the catalogs,” Bonamassa says. “We didn’t do (Waters’) ‘Hoochie Coochie Man.’ We didn’t do the well-worn path.”

With an eight-man backing band that included a three-piece horn section, keyboardist Reese Wynans (formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band), drummer Anton Fig (of David Letterman’s Late Show band) and harmonica ace Mike Henderson, the musicians punched up what were often raw, stripped-back originals into swinging Big Band versions of the Waters and Wolf material.

“We were paying tribute, but we certainly weren’t trying to just do note-for-note replications of the tunes,” Bonamassa says. “We took some liberties. I mean, I’m not Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, and I wasn’t pretending to be. I just tried to do my own thing with it.”

Fans seem to like Bonamassa’s interpretations of the Waters and Wolf songs. Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks became his 14th No.-1 Blues album, and the DVD also topped Billboard’s music-video chart.

This summer, though, Bonamassa is stepping away from the Waters and Wolf material to pay tribute to three more giants of the blues — B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King — with what he is calling the “3 Kings” tour. He’ll have to do some work just to cull the songs he’ll play from what is a vast catalog of material from the three Kings.

“There are so many eras of B.B. King. There are so many eras of Freddie,” Bonamassa says. “You could do an all-instrumental set of Freddie. Or you could do the Shelter (Records) years. Or, you could do ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ when you’re doing covers of his. Albert’s (is) more of a Soul catalog. We’re (just seeing) what lends itself to the band and my voice and go from there. I’m excited because I’m already a little more familiar with this catalog than I was with Muddy (and) Wolf.

The “3 Kings” tour isn’t the only thing on Bonamassa’s plate, which is no surprise, considering he has long been one of the most prolific and hardest-working artists in all of music. Just before his Muddy Wolf tour in the spring, Bonamassa got together for writing sessions with several of Nashville’s top songwriters for his next studio album. He had some song ideas in hand before the writing sessions and may have a direction in mind for the album.

“I think I may do more of a stripped-down four-piece (sound),” Bonamassa says. “You never know. It depends on the material that’s written.”

The next album, though, looks very likely to follow in the tradition of Different Shades of Blue in one way — it will be made up almost entirely of songs written or co-written by Bonamassa. The previous album marked the first time he had extensively done co-writing. And while some artists balk at co-writing — they may interpret it as a sign their record label, producer or other outside party lacks faith in their own abilities — Bonamassa immediately embraced the idea of writing with others.

“I don’t have an ego about it,” he says. “I think, let the better song win, and if that better song is written by me, great. If it’s not written by me, even better.”

For a long time, writing on his own served Bonamassa, 37, just fine, as he gradually built a career in which he is seen as one of the leading artists in Blues Rock. Initially the Utica, N.Y. native was seen as a guitar prodigy, playing some 20 shows with B.B. King by the time he was 12 years old.

After coming to the public’s attention in 1995 as a featured member of the short-lived band Bloodline, Bonamassa launched his solo career. His first significant impact came with his sixth album, 2007’s Sloe Gin. He followed Sloe Gin with several more studio albums, including three albums with his now-defunct supergroup, Black Country Communion, and two with singer/songwriter Beth Hart. Bonamassa has grown his gigantic fan base entirely through touring and, since Sloe Gin, releasing his own records. His success has come with little mainstream press or radio support. 

After the “3 Kings” jaunt, the singer/guitarist plans to do a fall theater tour that will encapsulate Bonamassa’s year in a nice way.

“(It will) probably be a mixture of Muddy Wolf, ‘3 Kings,’ my songs,” Bonamassa says, before noting that any thoughts about that tour are subject to change. “To be honest with you, the fall at this point is literally a lifetime of experiences away before we even get there.”


JOE BONAMASSA plays Kettering, Ohio’s Fraze Pavilion Saturday. Tickets/more info: fraze.com.


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