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Joe Bonamassa: A guitar god 20 years in the making

Joe Bonamassa: A guitar god 20 years in the making

When guitar great Joe Bonamassa steps on stage at Star Plaza Theatre on Tuesday, it will be exactly one year after he did the same in London before a sold-out audience, in a performance captured on his new DVD, "Joe Bonamassa: Live From Royal Albert Hall."

"I can't believe it will be a year already. It seems like yesterday," said Bonamassa. "It was such a wonderful experience to stand up there on that stage and play with Eric Clapton. It was the thrill of a lifetime."

Clapton's appearance was not by happenstance. "No, I wrote to him and asked him to please come and he did," explained Bonamassa on how he wound up swapping licks with his childhood idol. "That was just the coolest thing ever!"

The two guitarists jammed on "Further Up The Road." "I wanted to do that one, because Eric's version of it was the first blues song I ever learned how to play on electric guitar," he said. "So being there and playing it with him that night sort of brought things full circle. I can never repay him for that."

He will attempt to though, by performing this summer in Grant Park at Clapton's now annual "Chicago Crossroads Concert." "I was thrilled Eric asked me to be play Crossroads," he said.

Nearly 20 years ago, Bonamassa was the "unknown guy" bending his strings in teenage blues-rock combo called aptly called Bloodline, since it was rounded out by such musical progeny as Waylon Krieger (son of The Doors' Robbie Krieger), Berry Oakley Jr. (son of the late Allman Bros. Oakley Sr.) and Eric Davis (son of jazz pioneer Miles Davis).

"We were together for six years," he said of Bloodline. "It was so long ago, but I'm proud of the record we made and I'm happy to have had that experience. But in the end, it just ran its course simply because of youth and inexperience."

Now 10 solo albums and two decades later, Bonamassa is finally seeing his star rise. His newest CD, "Black Rock," is his first to land on the Top 40 album chart.

Released in March via his own indie label, J&R Adventures, "Black Rock" is named after the Black Rock Studio in Greece where it was recorded with producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes) last year. On it, Bonamassa runs a broad gamut of styles ranging from ‘60s-era British electric blues to rootsy, finger-pickin' Delta blues.

While his playing style is different, Bonamassa's sudden meteoric rise is not unlike that of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the early 1980s. After years of honing his talents, Vaughan became a household name and superstar seemingly overnight.

"Yeah, I'm the 20-year overnight success," joked Bonamassa of how the public has finally taken notice after all this time.

"It's taken a while, but we have done progressively better every year and with every album," reflected Bonamassa. "We've just made it our priority to do a good live show every time we step on stage and I think that has been paying off for us."

His region concert on May 6 at Star Plaza will be another example. "We don't use support groups," he said. "We just come out there and give the audience everything we've got. We do a 2-hour and 10-minute nonstop show."

The guitarist believes that much of his current success is due to his musical evolution. "Black Rock" has found Bonamassa moving away from focusing primarily on his string prowess as he did on earlier albums, in favor of focusing more on the songs and doing more singing.

"We've definitely taken a different approach," he said. "The first albums were three verses, then 30 bars of soloing, another verse and end.

This album is more about the songs and melody. It's one thing to be a guitarist, and another thing to have songs that people want to come and hear you sing."

The opening song on the CD, "Steal Your Heart Away," was recommended to Bonamassa by none other than Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame. Other highlights are covers of Leonard Cohen's "Bird On A Wire," John Hiatt's "I Know A Place," and the Jeff Beck classic, "Spanish Boots."

Bonamassa has not gotten any feedback from Beck on his treatment of the song, but expects to when his band teams up for a few concert dates later this year with Beck. And he would love to share the kind of Clapton experience he had at Royal Albert Hall with Beck, by jamming with him on "Spanish Boots," but whether it happens remains to be seen.

Bonamassa gives much of the props for the success of the album to Shirley's masterful production skills and input; along with the amazingly talented members of his recording and touring band. The current line-up being groove master bassist Carmine Rojas (ex-Bowie), Rick Melick on keyboards, and drummer Bogie Bowles (ex-Kenny Wayne Shepherd).

"I'll tell you, it'll be a lot less stressful to be playing Star Plaza than it was a year ago at Royal Albert Hall," he laughed.

"I'm happy to be coming your way. We've not been in the (Chicagoland) area for a long time and I've never played at Star Plaza Theatre. I'm looking forward to become part of the legacy there because so many great artists have been on stage there over the years, including B.B. King," said Bonamassa, who is a close friend of King's.

As the son of a music store owner and guitar player in Utica, N.Y., Bonamassa got his first instrument at age 4.

By age 7, Bonamassa was playing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix tunes. At age 11, he was taught to pick country and play jazz from renown guitarist Danny Gatton, who invited young Bonamassa to sit in on gigs with his band whenever they played in New York.

That led to Bonamassa landing an open slot for B.B. King, who was so blown away by the lad, that he has been a friend and mentor ever since. King even guests with Bonamassa on the new "Black Rock" album for a rousing treatment of the Willie Nelson classic "Night Life," which King first covered in 1967 on his own album, "Blues Is King."

"It's been long and wonderful journey to get to this point," said Bonamassa, clearly grateful to all of the amazing and talented people who have contributed to his career and his success. He strives to live up to their belief in him every time he picks up his guitar. "We give it everything we've got from the first note to the last."

Joe Bonamassa, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Star Plaza Theatre, I-65 & US 30, Merrillville

COST: $39-$69 (all-ages)

FYI: (219) 769-6600, (800) 745-3000, STARPLAZA.COM

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