If you know nothing else about Joe Bonamassa, know this: he is a bluesman. You can hear it in his note choice and growling vocals. You can see it in the way he struts on stage. You can hear it when he speaks about the deep impact the blues has had on him. This is a man who was born to do this—literally.

The son of a New York guitar shop owner, Bonamassa was in a musically-nurturing environment throughout his childhood. By age four, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Despite the child prodigy label often placed on young players, Bonamassa was never pressured into something he was uninterested in. “I was never forced to practice,” Bonamassa recently explained to the IN. “Guitar was something I took to like ducks take to water.”

As a kid, it was the heavy hitters of British blues rock—most notably Cream, Jeff Beck, and Zeppelin—that resonated the most for Bonamassa. “It’s all subject to taste, but when you listen to Cream’s version of ‘Crossroads’ as opposed to Robert Johnson’s, to an eight-year-old kid, that sound is a lot more exciting. Ultimately, I ended up addressing the subtleties and rediscovering the original stuff later, but as a kid, it was exciting listening to those British interpretations.”

After a couple of major record label deals early in his career, Bonamassa made a conscious decision to build his career independently. He has no qualms when comparing the way he does things with the current state of popular music. “Necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re talking about this type of music, major labels don’t want to get involved. They want big singles with videos and exploding things on stage.”

Bonamassa is proud of his career and the work it has taken to achieve the things he has. With nine records under his belt, it’s easy to see how such a rabid fan base has grown over time. It is this committed audience that he plays for, not his critics. “I don’t base my career on what people think or whether they respect it or not. I base my career on smiling faces and happy fans.” What he calls the “brick by brick” approach to his career was a gamble at first, but it has proven hugely beneficial.

All this hard work came to a head at a May 2009 sold-out performance at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall that Bonamassa calls “a culmination of 20 years of hard work.” He was also joined by one of his boyhood idols for a song—none other than Eric Clapton. The call and response section of Clapton’s original “Further on Up the Road” is something that music fans have to admire. When asked whether it was overwhelming to be sharing the stage with Clapton on his home turf, Bonamassa was gracious and conciliatory. “The whole thing was surreal. How could I ever repay Eric for that?”

Collaborations are nothing new for Bonamassa, however. At the age of 33, it’s mind-boggling to consider the names he has played with: artists as diverse as blues master B.B. King and legendary bluegrass picker Sam Bush. Bonamassa’s most recent project, Black Country Communion, is a super-group of sorts. Joining Bonamassa are Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham), Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes and keyboardist Derek Sherinian. This combination is a brute force of American and British rock.

Although Bonamassa has proven to be a workhorse in the studio, the stage is where his gifts become most obvious. His presence is undeniable, and he has the unique ability to combine raw, unadulterated electric blues with more delicate turns of guitar phrase. It is this total package that promises to give Pensacola’s beautiful Saenger Theatre and its patrons the show it deserves.

Read more: Independent News

Photo: Christie Goodwin