Naturally, the young performer was thrilled — and not just about the prospect of playing his crimson-red Fender Stratocaster, which he nicknamed “Rosie,” for a crowd of thousands at the Rochester Lilac Festival in upstate New York.
“He was my hero. I loved B.B. King,” recalled the Grammy Award-nominated blues-rock guitarist, who ended up playing 20 shows with King in the summer of 1989.
Bonamassa, 38, will pay tribute to his late friend and mentor Monday when he performs at Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles. The concert is part of Bonamassa’s Three Kings tour, dedicated to the music of King and his fellow electric blues guitar greats Albert King and Freddie King.
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The 21-song set finds Bonamassa singing and shredding for more than two hours, backed by an 11-piece band. “It’s a very taxing show to sing and play, but it’s very rewarding,” he said.
Bonamassa isn’t sure when he first picked up the guitar — “I could play when I was 5,” he said — but there’s no question that the New Hartford, New York, native was a natural.
By 12, the six-string prodigy had his own band, Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa, and a steady string of weekend gigs.
In his teens, he played with the band Bloodline, whose membership included the sons of Miles Davis, Robby Krieger and Berry Oakley. Bonamassa released his debut album, “A New Day Yesterday,” in 2000 at age 23.
“A lot of it was manifest destiny,” he said, as well as an insatiable drive to succeed. “I wanted to play music for a living. I wanted to have access to guitars.”
Bonamassa’s determination hasn’t wavered during a decades-long career that’s included 20-plus solo albums and collaborations with jazz-funk band Rock Candy Funk Party and singer-songwriter Beth Hart — even during some trying times.
“When you show up in Rockford, Ill., on a rainy Tuesday night and there are 12 people in the place, you start to question what you’re doing there,” he quipped.
“I honestly had no B plan,” Bonamassa said. “It wasn’t like I was going to become an AAMCO brake repairman. I don’t know how to repair brakes. It wasn’t like I was going to (open) a Pita Pit. I don’t know how to make pita bread.”
What he does know is music — specifically sophisticated yet soulful roots-based blues rock that draws as much inspiration from British and Irish artists such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher as it does from traditional American bluesmen.
“I’m a product of my influences and a product of my environment,” Bonamassa explained. “The blues really does pick up the DNA (of what’s around it). It’s like the tofu of music. If you want to make it sweet, add sugar. If you want to make it (spicy), add chili.”
Bonamassa doesn’t mind being considered a maverick, either.
“I have made a career and millions of dollars being the guy who doesn’t give a (crap) what blues purists think of me,” said the chart-topping performer, who was named top guitarist at the Blues Music Awards in May. “The only way the music grows grow, is if you experiment with it.” Otherwise, he added, “the music just stagnates.”
“When I play a B.B. King song, I’m in no way comparing myself to him or trying to compete with him,” Bonamassa said. “My music is a way of people discovering B.B. King.”
Bonamassa started planning his Three Kings tour last summer following the success of Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, a tribute concert at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre dedicated to blues icons Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. (Bonamassa’s J&R Adventures released live video and audio recordings of the concert on March 23.)
“This is the culmination of a year’s worth of work,” Bonamassa said. “One of my biggest regrets is that B.B. isn’t alive to see it.”
Speaking of King, who died May 14 at age 89, the guitarist said, “He’d always been nice to me. He always was a friend. He always had good advice and solid things to say.”
What advice, specifically did King give him? “Anything from ‘Watch your money’ to ‘To keep doing what you’re doing,’” Bonamassa said.
The guitarist had similarly high praise for the other two men he honors on the Three Kings tour.
“Albert was more of a Stax soul singer” who happened to play a mean blues guitar, Bonamassa said. “(And) Freddie was the scorpion of the lot. His voice and his playing were so fiery.”
“People really dig the work they did, and they’re digging it on this tour,” he said.
A portion of the proceeds from the Three Kings tour will go to Bonamassa’s nonprofit, Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which funds music education programs and scholarships for teachers and students.
Bonamassa acknowledged he’s anxious about the future of the genre.
“The concern is that … the influence of the blues is less and less (apparent) in pop music,” he said. “The kids are taking from influences that are 10, 15, 25 years old. They don’t know who Led Zeppelin is, let alone Howling Wolf.”
“Jack White and The Black Keys have brought that music to the college-age crowd,” he said. “I have an older crowd (of fans), which is fine. I hail back to an earlier time.”
“The more people involved in (the blues), the healthier it is,” Bonamassa said.