When I caught up with Joe Bonamassa, it seemed as though we were already speaking on borrowed time. The dazzling and influential blues guitarist and songwriter had a few minutes to speak ahead of his soundcheck at Detroit’s Fox Theatre this past Friday on a date that holds huge power and significance for the artist. It was the 30th anniversary of the first time he had ever stepped onstage for a gig. Since starting all the way back on Nov. 8, 1989, Bonamassa has had a hugely successful yet improbable career for an artist with 37 full-length albums, 21 of which have reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Blues charts. With no big hits or real presence in the pop culture landscape, he is arguably one of the most successful and important artists within the genre. Bonamassa is, by all accounts, an anomaly of this current moment and his success is a true testament to his talent as a performer. Bonamassa and his band will be playing three nights at The Beacon Theatre starting this Thursday.
On the day I’m speaking with you, it’s the 30th anniversary of your very first show. How does it feel reaching such a milestone in your career?
Joe Bonamassa: I’ve been thinking about this for two years and it kind of crept up on me. It’s an emotional day, I went through a bunch of old photographs. To be honest with you, it’s a pretty heavy day. I shouldn’t be here. I have no radio hits. I’ve made 37 albums. I got here on sheer hard work and determination and never imagined I’d be here 28 years. I shouldn’t be here and there is a law of averages says this shouldn’t be happening. It’s a sentimental day and an emotional day. It’s pretty cool.
Your career has definitely moved against the grain and convention. Your longevity is a real testament to your singular voice as an artist.
Joe Bonamassa: I don’t know why what I do resonates to a broader audience. I never really ask that question because you can’t overthink it. Because if you overthink it, then you overdo it, then you over everything. I’m just thankful for today. It’s a day to take stock. I was telling a friend of mine, the whole thing feels like the whole thing has gone by in a blink of an eye yet the whole thing feels like a lifetime.
I’m not a lifer, in this. I may have 10 years before I hang it up or bow out gracefully. Or maybe 20, I’m not sure. No more than 20. I may go for 50 years and be 52 years old and have a second act. Or I may say “F--k it” and do it for 40 years. There has to be a round number in it. I know 10 years is going to go by in a blink of an eye. It’s been 10 years since we did the Royal Albert Hall in ‘09. In the next 10 years, in 2029 I’ll be 52 years old and will have to do something special in time for ‘49. There’s a point when it’s like, “Okay, we get your point.” Then you bow out gracefully.
You are such a versatile player who has found new ways to add different elements into the blues. Does finding a new heartbeat in such a “purist” genre excite you?
Joe Bonamassa: The purists say this about me all of the time. “He’s not really blues.” I agree. I’m not really blues, I’m not really anything. I’m a genre within a genre. I toe the line between rock, blues, and singer-songwriter and that resonates to a larger audience. If I played Chicago blues all night or if I played straight-up rock it wouldn’t be what it is. The variety makes ... I think helps it become more marketable. Then there’s the other guy! The other guy is a character within my personality. There’s the all-day guy, and then there’s the other guy who dresses up in a suit and gets up there to try to entertain people. Me personally, I’m just a pretty shy, basic person who just likes to play guitar. There are two different sides to my personality. It’s really something that quite frankly, has worked. I can’t think about it too much because they like the guy in the suit. It is what it is.
Have you always been attracted to veering away from people’s expectations?
Joe Bonamassa: I didn’t gig to be famous. There are other people in the genre that embrace the fame and the cool hip factor. That’s okay. Because that’s the way that they got to where they needed to go. I’m not a tastemaker. I’m not a fashionista. I’m not any of that. I’ve never been invited to a Hollywood party, nor do I expect to be. I’m not the guy who needs the scene. I’m the guy who works his ass off and the people who miss the scene tend to wonder how I sell 5,000 tickets to Detroit. I’d rather be that guy than the people who say, “I can’t believe we didn’t sell all of our tickets but got invited to all of the cool parties”. It’s not a diss against anybody, all of the genres are like that. Household names don’t have the outreach that I do. I’m perpetually underground, but if you ask 30 people at a bar what a “Joe Bonamassa” is, they’ll say “I don’t know.”
You’ll be playing three shows at Beacon Theatre starting this Thursday. Does this run have any significance for you around your 30th anniversary of playing music?
Joe Bonamassa: We’ve been playing the Beacon Theatre for 10 years. It’s home. We did Radio City. We did Carnegie. I like the Beacon. A 2,500 seat theater is something I’m set up for. I like the sound. I like being able to look people in the eye and it not being a black hole. It just works.
Make sure to grab tickets to see Joe Bonamassa at the Beacon Theatre this week.
Watch Joe Bonamassa perform 'This Train" below...