There is a credo printed on the inside cover art to Joe Bonamassa’s new “Live at the Greek Theatre” album. What it entails isn’t so much a philosophy but a practice, a four word summation of the guitarist’s life as a working musician.
“Always on the road.”
For Bonamassa, this is a simple truism. Since opening for B.B. King at the age of 12, he has amassed a critical reputation as a vanguard instrumentalist that is exceeded only by an even greater profile as a live performer, be it in a format of straight blues or through any number of side projects that veer into rock (Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Jason Sherinian and Jason Bonham), jazz/funk (Rock Candy Funk Party) or collaborative blues/soul settings (with singer Beth Hart).
Add to that the number of live albums he has released chronicling his touring adventures (an astounding 10 since 2012) and there is little doubt Bonamassa indeed lives for – and on – the road.
“A lot of musicians make a record, do a tour and then they go away for four or five years,” said Bonamassa, who returns to Lexington for a Dec. 6 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “That’s fine if that’s how you want to do it, but I come from the B.B. King school of touring where you make a record just so you can stay on the road.”
That’s why Bonamassa’s vast catalog of live recordings is peppered with studio albums, the works he promotes on tour and, ultimately, the products of what his touring life brings him. His newest is “Blues of Desperation,” an hour long set of original compositions released in March that displays a broad dynamic range of the blues, from barnstorming guitar excursions to comparatively meditative pieces.
“I wanted to do another original record,” the guitarist said. “It’s been great for me to rediscover songwriting. I kind of had a few years of dormancy where I wasn’t inspired to write as much. It’s nice to get back into it and create your own world again. It’s a lot of fun.”
Music from “Blues of Desperation” will constitute roughly half of the Singletary Center show. Much of the rest will be devoted to the repertoire from “Live at the Greek Theatre.” Don’t let the somewhat unrevealing album title fool you. This isn’t a standard revisit to older, familiar music. Instead, Bonamassa fronts an 11 member band on the record boasting horns, backing vocalists and, most importantly, songs drawn exclusively from careers of the guitar-slinging Three Kings of blues music – Freddie King, Albert King and B.B. King.
“Those are the cats,” Bonamassa said. “That’s where the DNA is written in my world. I don’t think 10 years ago I could have done something like this. I just don’t think it would have been in my wheelhouse to pull it off, vocally or musically. I mean, I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with an 11 piece band. I mean, 10 or 15 years ago, the fact that I had 11 people in my whole crew on the road was an undertaking much less an 11 piece band. We’re traveling now with an eight piece band including two great singers and two horns. It’s been great. To have that big sound is really important because those guys had big bands. Those guys had big show bands. So this is an honor. I’ve always wanted to have a big band on the road.”
The ensemble – which includes former CBS Orchestra/David Letterman drummer Anton Fig, Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboard alumnus Reese Wynans and veteran trumpeter Lee Thornburg (all of whom are scheduled to perform with Bonamassa at the Singletary) – also allows the guitarist to explore the stylistic differences within the music of the Three Kings, from Freddie’s muscular guitar tone to Albert’s soul/blues fondness to B.B.’s gifts as an instrumentalist, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.
“Freddie was the firecracker of the three. Albert was the soul man and B.B. was the blues. It was harder to find songs of Freddie’s. We tried to stay away from the well worn paths, but it was also one of these things where we wanted to get deep into the catalog to some of Freddie’s pre-vocal era, into the Shelter years (referring to the label Freddie cut a trio of superlative albums for during the early ‘70s) and beyond. Albert was soul based, straight up, and B.B. was a shouter. B.B. had, arguably, to me, the best of the three voices. But that’s like saying, ‘What’s better, a Ferrari or a Ferrari?’”
The record and tour also boast another, more unintended tribute. Among the B.B. King recordings they cover is a soul-steeped, quietly combustible tune initially cut by the blues giant in 1970 called “Hummingbird.” Its composer was the great song stylist Leon Russell, who died last month.
“At first, I wasn’t so keen on doing it. Kevin (Shirley, Bonamassa’s long time producer) kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to try it.’ Then as soon as we got an arrangement of it, I was, ‘Oh, man. This is the best thing we’ve done in a long time.’ It’s a beautifully written song, but a quirky song. It works, though. We close our show with it every night. I would like to close with something more uptempo, but you can’t follow that song. That’s a tribute to the writing, to the bigness of it.”
Joe Bonamassa performs at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $89-$125. Call 859-257-4929 or go to finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center/joe-bonamassa.