Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa first opened a show for B.B. King back in 1989. He was just 12 years old. The six-string prodigy from Utica, N.Y., was so well received that he opened 20 shows for B.B. King that summer. When Bonamassa returned to school that fall, he wrote about the experience in a “What I did on my summer vacation” essay. His teacher’s response? “Please stop making stuff up in your gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane in the Land of Make Believe.”
But Bonamassa had the last laugh. He had backstage pass to prove it.
On Tuesday, Aug. 11, Bonamassa is paying—or, more accurately, playing—tribute to the recently deceased B.B. King at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. He’s also celebrating the music of two other Kings of the blues, Albert and Freddie, on the Three Kings Tour.
Of the three blues monarchs, Freddie’s reign was the shortest. The Texan bluesman died in 1976 at age 42. Bonamassa helped induct Freddie King, who penned blues standards such as “Hide Away” and “The Stumble,” into the 2012 class of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame by joining guitar heroes Derek Trucks and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons to perform “Goin’ Down.”
“Freddie was a real big hero,” Bonamassa told me in an interview that same year. “I was born a year after he died. For me, Freddie was always the forgotten King. When you’re talking about blues players with the last name King, B.B.’s going to come first because he’s an undisputed champion and he defined the genre of music in which I currently enjoy success. And Albert King made all those great records and ‘Born under a Bad Sign,’ etcetera, etcetera. But Albert was almost more of a soul singer. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Freddie was almost the forgotten King. But if you ever look at his catalog, [it includes] ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman.’”
Bonamassa performs over 200 nights a year, a rate similar to that of B.B. King throughout his career. The 38-year-old blues-rock guitarist, whose stage attire consists of a suit and sunglasses (“for the glare of lights,” he explains), has garnered a sizable fanbase. His 11th studio album, Different Shades of Blue, was the musical equivalent of an IPO. Last September, it debuted at No. 8 in Billboard’s top 200 album charts. The record, produced by longtime associate Kevin Shirley (producer and mixer for Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Journey, Iron Maiden, Robert Cray) showcases Bonamassa’s air-bending guitar skills and his ability to write memorable melodies.
“I kept stockpiling material,” says Bonamassa. “I had some good songs, I had some solid material, but I didn’t have that big stomping, swampy blues thing that I’ve become known for. I wrote this song with my friend James House called ‘Oh Beautiful,’ which was nothing but an a capella verse and then a crazy kind of Led Zeppelin riff. I knew when I came back from that particular writing session on that particular day that we had the record done.”
Joe’s fingers haven’t been idle since that album’s release and subsequent tour. In January, he played guitar on Mahalia Barnes’ Ooh Yeah, a spirited tribute to soul singer Betty Davis. Two months later, he released Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, a DVD and CD concert tribute to the blues titans Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In July, the guitarist’s side project band, Rock Candy Funk Party, released Groove is King, an album of instrumentals that will delight fans of George Clinton, Prince, and Jeff Beck.
In sum: Joe Bonamassa takes about as many vacation days as a Space Station Astronaut. But he relishes performing for thousands of fans each night (and meeting many of them before and after the shows). For all his extraordinary success, Bonamassa remains modest and self-effacing.
“I’m not trying to be the hippest thing,” jokes Bonamassa. “I’m like Opie Taylor plays the blues in sunglasses and a suit.”
For more information (and free downloads of MP3s) visit JBonamassa.com. Joe Bonamassa plays at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, 21 West Main St., Hyannis. For tickets, please call the box office at 508-775-5630.