JENNINGS: The rise of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa performs at Icon: The Life And Legacy Of B.B. King at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

In 1989, Joe Bonamassa was a 12-year-old guitar wizard who landed a spot opening for B.B King, Not long afterward, Bonamassa had a moment in the national spotlight thanks to a feature on the guitar prodigy that appeared on “Real Life with Jane Pauley."

Billed as “Smokin’ Joe” at the time, Joe’s future seemed so bright it’s no wonder he eventually adopted his trademark shades onstage.

While there was no denying his talent, Bonamassa’s future as a blues legend was far from certain in 1989, and it would take a lot of hard work and plenty of mistakes along the way for him to solidify his place in the music industry,

Joe’s rise and evolution as an artist is chronicled in the recently released documentary “Guitar Man” which is available to rent on major streaming services. The documentary provides an excellent overview of Bonamassa’s career and if you are not familiar with his work, it is a great starting point.

There are two eras the film chronicles — before his historic 2009 Royal Albert Hall performance in the U.K and the time after the performance. Before the Royal Albert Hall performance, Joe joined a short-lived “supergroup” called Bloodline, that fizzled out before they could record a second album

After Bloodline, Joe released a series of albums on different record labels, but without much fanfare. Even though Joe enjoyed a loyal following, he had not reached the commercial potential that many had foreseen when he was a 12-year-old.

That changed in 2009, when Joe landed a show at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall, the location of one of the most famous live recordings of all-time, Cream’s 1968 Farewell Concert.

Bonamassa's concert spawned a DVD, and later the show was edited down for broadcast on many PBS stations across the country during membership drives. After 20 years in the industry, he had finally solidified his place amongst the greatest guitarists of all-time.

Over the last decade, Joe’s body of work has been extraordinary. Since 2010, Bonamassa has released seven solo albums, four albums with Black Country Communion and three with Beth Hart. There have been numerous guest appearances, and live albums and DVDs as well, making Joe one of the most productive musician’s of the last decade.

Bonamassa’s shows typically sell out, and each time he comes to town he adds a new wrinkle to his set. Because of his ties to New York state, Joe usually stops in Buffalo or Rochester on each tour, and his parents are found in the audience.

What makes Joe’s story even more remarkable is that he accomplished it all as an independent artist. His is a story about grit and determination, and even as he has established a solid following, there is much more music left to be written.

Most importantly, Joe is just 43 years old, half the age of 84-year-old Buddy Guy, who is still touring. Joe will keep the blues alive for another generation, and maybe someday Joe will find a 12-year-old guitar wizard from a small town to open one of his shows.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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