A man plays guitar on stage
Joe Bonamassa, one of the biggest names in blues music today, opens his 2022 fall tour with a Nov. 1 show at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. (Photo: Kit Wood)

Joe Bonamassa kicks off his fall 2022 tour in a familiar place. The man called “the world’s biggest blues guitarist” by Guitar World Magazine will play Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Nov. 1.

“I’ve done shows at the Hammons Hall with people like B.B. King, Peter Frampton and George Thorogood in my formative years when I was the perennial opener,” Bonamassa said from Los Angeles in a phone interview. “If it’s good enough for B.B. King, it’s good enough for me.”

That’s why he’s more than happy to play venues like Hammons Hall — which he estimates he’s played six times in the last 20 years — even when they’re not the biggest room in the city. Great Southern Bank Arena with it’s 10,000-plus seats, for example, is just down the road.

“One of the things is I know, I have a guaranteed outcome at the Hammons Hall because it’s a good-sounding room, people enjoy coming there, the sound will be good and it’s a good experience for the fans,” Bonamassa said. “Once we hit those criteria, you have me at hello as opposed to a big cavernous thing.

“This kind of music doesn’t play well (in big venues). You have to hear the subtleties to get the big picture. We don’t blow stuff up. There’s not, like, balloons falling from the ceiling and that kind of thing. We do bring a big production, but it does play well in a medium-sized venue.”

That’s just a bit of the expertise Bonamassa has gained in a long career, despite being just 45 years old. The native of New Hartford, New York, started playing guitar at age 4 and had his own band at age 12, opening for King at approximately 20 shows in 1989.

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No longer the ‘perennial opener’

Now, the former “perennial opener” is entrenched as the headliner, with more No. 1 Billboard Blues Albums (25) than any other artist.

“You’re looking at a 33-year overnight success, my friend,” he said with a laugh. “That’s good old-fashioned sweat equity and a bunch of misguided, blind belief in oneself.”

That sweat equity has paid off with a long career. Bonamassa’s first solo album is now 22 years old. One of his biggest albums, “Blues Deluxe,” is about to turn 20.

“The scariest thing about it is I have such vivid memories of making the records, and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but you’re talking 20 years,” Bonamassa said. “My first major label record is about to turn 30, and I’m sitting here going ‘it doesn’t seem like that far back, but yeah it’s 30 years.’ I’m only 45, but I started young and had a career since I’ve been 12, so I’ve been very lucky to slog it out in this music business for as long as I have.”

A man sits on a wooden stool and plays guitar
Joe Bonamassa estimates he’s played Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts six times in the last 20 years. He’ll open his 2022 fall tour there Nov. 1. (Photo by Eleanor Jane)

Keeping the blues alive

“Torchbearer for the blues” is another phrase that writers use when describing Bonamassa. He might shrug off such titles, but it’s clear he takes the genre seriously and wants to give back. Both his foundation and his record label carry the name Keeping the Blues Alive.

“I don’t feel an obligation to protect the genre,” Bonamassa said. “The genre is bigger than I’ll ever be. But I feel an obligation to give back and find people, whether they’ve been in the game five minutes or 50 years, that deserve a real record and a shot with some marketing behind it. That’s what I get passionate about. I really feel like it’s something you need to really address once you achieve a level of success. How am I going to pay this forward a little bit? You can’t just do it all yourself. People like Joanne Shaw Taylor, Larry McCray, Eric Gales, Jimmy Hall, Joanna Connor, all the records we’ve produced over the last couple of years, I see it bearing fruit and I’m like ‘yeah!’”

COVID relief program helps musicians

Bonamassa was also there for the blues when COVID hit, launching a program called Fueling Musicians. Through that effort, Keeping the Blues Alive gave cash payments to struggling musicians to help with essential living expenses while they were unable to tour.

“Almost $750,000 we raised and we gave it all away,” Bonamassa said. “We gave it away as fast as it came in. People were hurting. People still are hurting. It’s not quite back to where it was. It’s a situation where it wasn’t like a trickle. It didn’t slow down or slowly become…it didn’t slowly stop, it brick-walled. It was going 100 mph, and it slammed into a brick wall.”

Fall tour to feature old hits, new songs

Things may not be back to 100 mph, but Bonamassa is happy to be touring and putting on shows that have old hits and new songs.

“The show this fall is everything from straight blues to progressive music to the hits,” he said. “The two hours go by fast. I can write a setlist where it just crawls by, or I can write a setlist where the fans go ‘Man, we’re at the encore already,’ and then they look at their watch and it’s been two hours. Those are the good sets. If you can get that kind of flow going between the acts, that’s what you want to do.”

And he gets to do it in a place he enjoys playing.

“We did our fair share of gigs at Nathan P. Murphy’s,” Bonamassa said. “Bob and I think it was Wanda, they used to cook dinner for the bands. We’ve been coming to Springfield a long time. It’s always a nice time.”

Want to go?

Tickets for Joe Bonamassa start at $39 and are on sale now through the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. You can buy them in person at the box office, online through the Hall’s website, or by calling 417-836-7678.

Jeff Kessinger

Jeff Kessinger covered sports in southwest Missouri for the better part of 20 years, from young athletes to the pros. The Springfield native and Missouri State University alumnus is thrilled to be doing journalism in the Queen City, helping connect the community with important information. He and wife Jamie daily try to keep a tent on the circus that is a blended family of five kids and three cats. More by Jeff Kessinger