Music News & Reviews

‘Different Shades’ of blues rocker Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa is known for his guitar skills.
Joe Bonamassa is known for his guitar skills. Courtesy of Christie Goodwin

This fall, blues rocker Joe Bonamassa is taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to his live show and sticking to the same format he introduced in the United States on his tour last fall.

“It’s basically the same. We’re opening up for ourselves,” Bonamassa said in a late-October phone interview. “We do like 45 minutes acoustic, and then take a 15-minute intermission, and then we play for about an hour and a half electric. It’s been a good show. It’s been a good program. We’ve been doing it for a little less than a year and the people really respond to it, so it’s quite cool.”

But don’t get the idea that Bonamassa, who plays at Century II on Sunday, doesn’t like change. In other important ways, the past year or so has all been about stepping into a new phase in his career.

This approach came after Bonamassa, sensing he was reaching the end of a phase with his music and career, decided to cap things off with a monumental live project.

He scheduled four shows in summer 2013 at four different venues in London. Each show focused on a different side of Bonamassa’s music, with a set list that was unique to that evening. And he played with three different bands – plus a horn section at one show – over the course of the four-night stand.

The result was documented on a four-DVD set called “Tour de Force.” Each of the DVDs, which were released in October 2013, documented one of the four shows in London – and they provided visual and audio evidence that the shows were a rousing success.

Bonamassa then turned his attention to opening a new chapter in his career by starting work on a studio album that would feature all original material – the first time Bonamassa would not include cover tunes on one of his albums. That CD, “Different Shades of Blue,” was released in September. To achieve the goal of an all-original album, producer Kevin Shirley suggested Bonamassa co-write songs with songwriters based out of Nashville.

Bonamassa embraced the idea. “I don’t have an ego about it,” he said. “Like, I think let the better song win, and if that better song is written by me, great. If it’s not written by me, even better.”

In all, he made five trips to Nashville, co-writing one song each with Gary Nicholson, Jonathan Cain and Jerry Flowers, two tracks with Flowers and Jeffery Steele and four songs with James House.

Despite the involvement of the outside writers, “Different Shades of Blue” remains very much in Bonamassa’s blues-rock wheelhouse. “Oh Beautiful,” “Never Give All Your Heart” and “Get Back My Tomorrow” are muscular tracks, with plenty of rhythmic heft and edgy guitar to go with ample melody. There’s some Texas blues shuffle on “I Gave Up Everything For You, ‘Cept the Blues.” Other songs, meanwhile, add further variety to the proceedings. “Love Ain’t a Love Song” and “Heartache Follows Wherever I Go” are horn-spiced songs that mix soul and rock, while the title song sounds a bit like a classic Bad Company blues-rock ballad.

For a long time, writing on his own served Bonamassa, 37, just fine, as he gradually built a career in which he is now seen as a solid songwriter along with being one of the best guitarists in the blues-rock genre.

A native of Utica, N.Y., Bonamassa, by the time he was 12, had played some 20 shows with blues legend B.B. King, who was an early supporter of the young guitarist.

A year later, he met another guitar legend, the late Danny Gatton. The guitarist took Bonamassa under his wing and introduced him to jazz, rockabilly and other styles – a process that certainly played a role in the way Bonamassa’s music has come to mix rock, jazz and other styles with blues.

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 (son of jazz legend Miles Davis), guitarist Waylon Krieger (son of Doors guitarist Robby Krieger) and bassist Berry Oakley Jr. (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.

Bonamassa has released 11 studio albums, including such well-received titles as “The Ballad of John Henry” (2009), “Black Rock” (2010) and “Driving Towards the Daylight” (2012). In between those albums, there have been three studio albums with the supergroup Black Country Communion and two studio albums made with singer/songwriter Beth Hart.

The large catalog of music Bonamassa has built over the years means he has plenty of material to fill a show.

“There’s a lot of stuff off of the new album,” Bonamassa said of his current set list. “Especially electrically it (the set) has changed up a bunch. We get to the meat and potatoes (too). Everybody wants to hear ‘Sloe Gin.’”

If you go

Joe Bonamassa

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $78.66-$101.46, wichitatix.com, 316-303-8100

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