The concert halls keep growing for Bonamassa

By John Benson

It wasn’t too long ago that Joe Bonamassa was a struggling New York City blues guitarist trying to make a name in the cutthroat music industry.

Today, the 35-year-old guitar wizard is celebrating the release of his latest CD/DVD, “Beacon Theatre — Live From New York,” which has added meaning other than just being another concert record.

“It’s the Beacon Theatre; I used to walk by there back in the days when I used to sell 80 or 90 tickets at The Cellar in Struthers,” said Bonamassa, calling from Ft. Wayne, Ind. “I used to walk by there to buy my peanut butter and jelly and Ramen noodles from the bodega on the corner. I’d see these great bills with like The Allman Brothers Band, Steely Dan and Lee Ritenour. I couldn’t afford to go, but I’d see the marquee and think, ‘That’s the place where all of the hip [expletive] goes down.’ That was the place you’d want to play.”

Well, that’s exactly where Bonamassa played two sold-out shows earlier this year with special guests Paul Rodgers, John Hiatt and Beth Hart joining him on stage. Now his star is rising after PBS and Palladia HD recently aired “Beacon Theatre — Live From New York.”

That’s why Bonamassa is returning to Northeast Ohio for a show, not at The Cellar but the decidedly larger Powers Auditorium. The gig takes place Wednesday at the Youngstown venue. Bonamassa’s latest studio effort is his 13th album, “Driving Towards The Daylight,” which also was released earlier this year.

“I wanted to make a blues album again, you know, go back to the basics,” Bonamassa said. “Oddly enough, the title track is probably my most pop song I’ve ever recorded, and it had the most traction at radio. But it wasn’t by design.”

Nothing ever is for Bonamassa, who admittedly has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the record industry and its star-maker, snake-oil salesmen. He eagerly told a story about early in his career meeting with some honcho who supposedly had all of the secrets.

“You’d sit in their office while they pontificated about what pop star is no longer in the business that they signed and was big at the time,” Bonamassa said. “They’d tell you what to do. They’d say stuff like changing your name and blah blah blah. I said if they can remember Meshell N’Dgecello or Engelbert Humperdinck, then they can remember Joe Bonamassa. I don’t want to say I showed them, but I really showed them, which is cool.”

These days, life is pretty cool for Bonamassa, who said his main concern is making sure his fans are getting their money’s worth when it comes to his records, DVDs and live dates. Conversely, he stressed he’s not the kind of artist who puts on airs. You’ll never see Bonamassa acting like a rock star.

“Most of the people who come to shows in Youngstown have probably met me or shook my hand,” Bonamassa said. “They’d say, ‘He’s just a guitar geek who is really crazy to watch.’ That’s what is most important to me, how my fans look at me. And it’s important that they know that I’m still the same blue-collar kid who used to drive the van from Struthers to Cleveland overnight to make the gig from The Cellar to the Beachland Tavern. It wasn’t even the Ballroom.”

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