That catchphrase seen on concert T-shirts neatly sums up the conundrum that is Joe Bonamassa, the 38-year-old singer-guitarist who played to a near sellout crowd at the Greek Theatre over the weekend.
A child prodigy on guitar, Bonamassa opened for B.B. King at age 12 and was profiled on NBC’s “Real Life With Jane Pauley” a year later in 1991. Successfully transitioning to an adult career, he’s traded licks onstage with Eric Clapton, toured the globe and has sold more than 2.5 million albums.
Yet like most of the guitar-playing bluesmen he reveres, he’s not exactly a household name.
Cult-figure status has its own appeal, however, and the cognoscenti at the Greek on Saturday night (including Jimmy Vivino, ace guitarist and bandleader for Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show) were treated to a virtuoso performance celebrating the music of guitar heroes Bonamassa billed as the Three Kings: Albert King, Freddie King and B.B. King.
Backed by three singers and a seven-piece band that included another late-night TV veteran, drummer Anton Fig (of the recently ended “Late Show With David Letterman”), Bonamassa tore through nearly two dozen of the greatest blues songs ever conjured, including “I’m Going Down,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Cadillac Assembly Line” and of course “The Thrill Is Gone,” which closed the night.
Playing instruments correct to all three bluesmen — including a guitar custom-made for Albert King, on loan from its current owner, actor Steven Seagal — Bonamassa evoked the signature licks of all three icons while managing to put his own stamp on things.
Despite the focus on guitar heroics, the music had swing and polish, with Bonamassa generously sharing solos with guitarist Kirk Fletcher and keyboard player Reese Wynans (who played keys for Stevie Ray Vaughan). Bonamassa’s singing, easy to overlook amid all those guitar solos, was abetted by his trio of backup singers, led by Mahalia Barnes.
In an interview a few days before the concert, Bonamassa said he got the idea for the Three Kings tour after doing a tribute show to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver last summer.
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“My only regret is that B.B. is not alive to see it,” he said, reckoning that he played at least 75 shows with the late bluesman, who died May 14 (Freddie and Albert passed decades earlier). “It was such an experience to play with him and just be around him.”
Bonamassa thinks B.B. King hired him in large part because he was “a cheap opening act,” earning less than $500 a night. He used the experience to soak up knowledge about being a musician, lessons he says he follows to this day.
B.B. King’s most memorable advice had little to do with guitar playing, however.
“He always used to say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, and watch your money. It’s a business like anything else,’” Bonamassa recalled.
The Greek was the last stop on the 14-date Three Kings tour, and for Bonamassa it had sentimental value. He said when he first moved to Los Angeles 13 years ago, he lived in the Los Feliz Manor apartment building and would buy peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at the Chevron station at Vermont Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard.
He watched people driving up to the 5,900-capacity Greek and dreamed of playing there someday. Making it a blues night, he said, just sweetened the deal — taking blues beyond the small clubs and juke joints where it is most often experienced.
“People tend to marginalize the blues,” he said. “I don’t think Freddie King ever played a room as big as the Greek.”
Bonamassa keeps an active recording and touring schedule (another slogan he uses on his merchandise is “Always on the Road”) and says the Three Kings project was intended as a short-term diversion.
The show was filmed for eventual digital release as well as airings on public television, where Bonamassa’s “Muddy Wolf” show at Red Rocks is already in rotation.
“You celebrate the masters,” he said. “If I can be successful at celebrating the masters, I can walk away a happy person.
“I’m by no means comparing myself to these people,” he added. “It’s celebrating music I really enjoy.”