Roughly a quarter-century ago, B.B. King said of Joe Bonamassa that "he hasn't even begun to scratch the surface."
It was an undeniable compliment to somebody not yet in his teens, but it was also a challenge - one that the blues-rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter apparently still takes to heart. Bonamassa continually scratches and scratches to get deeper.
His performance April 19 at the Adler Theatre will be one example, featuring a set with his acoustic band and another with his electric - both covering roughly 10 songs. The acoustic sets demonstrate that Bonamassa isn't content to skate by on instrumental virtuosity - unlike too many of his ace-guitarist peers. These shows require solid songs, nuance, and variety.
As he said in a phone interview last week, the two-set engagements are "very challenging vocally and on guitar, because you're essentially switching gears tune to tune."
Even better evidence of his range can be found in his recent discography. In the past two years alone, Bonamassa has put out the Driving Towards the Daylight studio album, live and studio releases with singer Beth Hart, the third and final album from the Black Country Communion super-group, a studio disc by the jazz-fusion Rock Candy Funk Party, Beacon Theatre: Live From New York, the live album An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House, and the four-disc Tour de Force: Live in London - documenting themed shows at four venues with different band lineups and more than 60 different songs. And he has a new studio album planned for fall release. (The old saw about the weather can be adapted for Bonamassa: If you don't like his latest record, just wait a few minutes.)
He explained: "There's no master plan. 'All right, I'll go play with Rock Candy Funk Party.' Or 'I'll go play a solo gig.' Or 'I'll go play with a rock band.' Having that freedom to basically switch gears makes it fun. We don't sit around and ask ourselves, 'Is this the right move for my career at this point?' ... I just go, 'This seems musically fun to me.'"
Bonamassa said his current tour originated with an acoustic show. "It would be kind of fun to bring it on the road, but I don't know if everybody's ready for just an evening of acoustic music," he said of his initial doubts. "So we split the show once last year at the [Royal] Albert Hall, and it went so well that we decided there was our answer right there."
His recent output provides ample proof that Bonamassa is a versatile guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He's best known for heavy blues rock in the British tradition, but in an acoustic context his voice and the songwriting shine nearly as brightly.
The massive Tour de Force is a great sampling, and it offers listeners opportunities to compare songs in different settings. There are two versions, for instance, of "Jockey Full of Bourbon" - one jazzy and light, the other a creamy rock treatment, and both showcasing a voice that's nimble and emotive.
But the long-form jams of "The Ballad of John Henry" (in three of the four featured concerts) might be the best examples of Bonamassa's skills beyond being a six-string wizard. The structure of the song doesn't change, but each version is distinct and carries a different vibe.
All versions highlight his singing in both the gentle and forceful veins, and there are of course plenty of great riffs, building to the nearly metallic. But the band and arrangement are just as important.
On the Royal Albert Hall version, the massive "When the Levee Breaks"-like drumming is balanced by whooshing percussive textures, and the pulsing bass occasionally pops up as melody instrument. The warm, thick organ is given an edge in a blistering duet with Bonamassa's guitar, which then rises from relatively quiet in the mix to again take the reins of the song.
Bonamassa has clearly benefited from his longstanding relationship with producer Kevin Shirley, who regularly pushes him out of his comfort zone. On Driving Towards the Daylight, Shirley surrounded him with ace session players. On his upcoming album, Shirley asked him to get away from his typical balanced mix of covers and originals. "He challenged me to write a whole record," Bonamassa said - which he did save for the opening track.
Bonamassa has said he doesn't particularly enjoy recording albums. "Some sessions fight me where I hate the studio; then there are some sessions where it doesn't fight you and you just love it," he told me. "The sessions that do fight you, though, you tend to get a better result than if you're just too comfy."
The new album, he said, was "definitely a combination of both. ... The gear kind of fought me a little bit. I blew up some amps, and the guitars were not happy to be in Las Vegas, but the music was happening. Sessions are great if the songs are together."
He added that music still provides plenty of opportunities to build on his craft, and that keeps him going: "I try to learn something every day. I'm still excited about the guitar. I still wake up, and I'm excited. If I'm excited, then great. If I'm not, then that's the time to hang it up."
Joe Bonamassa will perform on Saturday, April 19, at the Adler Theatre (136 East Third Street, Davenport; AdlerTheatre.com). The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets range from $71 to $101.
For more information on Bonamassa, visit JBonamassa.com.