Blues guitarist Bonamassa writes 'close to the record'

Lots of music artists describe their albums as snapshots in time, song collections meant to capture a certain period in their lives and in their creative development.

Joe Bonamassa takes that idea to an extreme whenever he makes a new CD. For his current release, "The Ballad of John Henry," he started writing songs for the project just two weeks before he needed to begin recording the album.

"I don't stockpile songs," Bonamassa said in a recent phone interview. "I'm not always writing. I write to order, and I like to write close to the record because it really represents where I'm at at that particular time. I'm constantly evolving, constantly hopefully growing and changing what I do, and so if I wrote something last year, it's going to sound like last year.

"This record, I think, is the best thing I've ever done."

Bonamassa has certainly had his share of success with his approach to record-making. Especially with his 2007 CD, "Sloe Gin," and now "The Ballad of John Henry," he has gained widespread praise from critics, who have seen notable growth in his songwriting and singing.

There are some who now consider Bonamassa the best of today's younger generation of blues-based artists. That wasn't always the case for Bonamassa, who made his presence felt as a guitarist at an unusually young age.

A native of Utica, N.Y., he began playing guitar at age 4. By the time he was 12, he had played some 20 shows with blues legend B.B. King, who was an early supporter of the young guitarist.

Bonamassa's real coming-out party, though, came in 1995 with the debut of his band Bloodline. The group got plenty of attention because it included the sons of three famous music figures — drummer Eric Davis was the son of jazz legend Miles Davis, guitarist Waylon Krieger was the son of Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and bassist Barry Oakley Jr. was the son of the late Allman Brothers Band bassist.

Despite that notoriety, the group was largely a vehicle for Bonamassa's eye-opening guitar skills. But after releasing a bluesy debut CD in 1995 on EMI Records, the group broke up over artistic disagreements. Bonamassa, now 32, then went solo.

On early albums like his 2000 debut, "A New Day Yesterday" and 2002's "So, It's Like That," Bonamassa's guitar playing took center stage.

But his songwriting and singing skills have steadily improved over the course of the five studio albums that followed. And on "The Ballad of John Henry," he has reached a point where his songwriting has gained equal footing with his much-lauded talent as a guitarist.

A varied album that adds shades of rock, soul and funk to Bonamassa's signature blues-rock sound, "John Henry" mixes together strong originals, including the title track and "Story of a Quarryman," with smartly chosen cover songs (such as Sam Brown's "Stop!" and Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon") that feature Bonamassa's own stylistic imprint.

Bonamassa gives considerable credit to Kevin Shirley, the producer of his four most recent CDs, for helping him to grow considerably as a songwriter and to expand his sound beyond his early blues-rock signature.

"He's done an amazing job, pushing me and keeping me out of my comfort zone," Bonamassa said. "That's really his strong suit. He just had a vision for what he thought I could do and he pushed me achieve it."

Bonamassa also likes how his live shows have evolved. He said he has reached a point now where spontaneity is a major ingredient of his live shows — to the point where he usually doesn't use a set list and subs different songs in and out of the set on a regular basis.

"We play a lot of stuff from 'John Henry,' but there's a lot of kind of older things, stuff from 'So It's Like That,' stuff that (fell) out (of the set) and then all of a sudden it's back in the set list. It's that kind of stuff."

If you go

joe bonamassa

What: Performance by the blues guitarist

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

How much: Tickets $31.50-$47.50, available at Select-A-Seat outlets, www.selectaseat.com, and employee clubs. Charge by phone, 316-755-SEAT. Box office, 316-263-0884.