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INTERVIEW: Joe Bonamassa Channels Two Chicago Blues Legends

By Casey Moffitt in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 14, 2015 4:30PM

Photo credit - Marty Moffatt

Blues master Joe Bonamassa is bringing his hot licks and big band to the The Chicago Theatre for two nights this week. We caught up with Bonamassa last week to talk a little bit about the show and the tribute he's cooked up to honor two Chicago blues giants.

Last month, Bonamassa released Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, a live album and concert film recorded at the famed Colorado amphitheater featuring the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Bonamassa said he's going to be performing some of the music from the project at the shows this week. Although Bonamassa was familiar with the songs of Waters and Wolf, he had never performed them live before that show.

"Obviously I had heard and listened to all those songs and was a big fan, but for some reason I just never played them before," he told Chicagoist. "I felt like I was pretty much going in blind and it was a lot of information to take in. But I'm happy to have spent the time and it wound up being a joy to sing and play those songs."

While delving in to the catalogues of Water and Wolf, Bonamassa discovered a few things about the works of these two men.

"I think the biggest discovery I made is what poets these guys were," he said. "And a lot of that credit has to go to Willie Dixon, who wrote a lot of those songs. That guy was a real poet. And because of that, it was really important to me that I got the lyrics right to those songs. I didn't want to go up there pretending and singing the wrong words to these iconic tunes. I had to keep that right."

Also, it's hard not to dig into those songs and hear the groundwork they laid for a lot of blues and rock music that followed.

"You can't listen to that catalogue and not hear one of the great rock bands of all time—The Rolling Stones," he said. "A. They took their name from a Muddy Waters song. And B, they had that same four-piece, ramshackle sound with nine-bar verses. It's a beautiful structure without any real structure. Everybody is just reacting to each other and when you get that, you've really got it."

Bonamassa said he considers himself and entertainer first and foremost, and when approaching the Muddy Wolf project he put together a nine-piece ensemble complete with a horn section. It isn't the way Waters or Wolf approached the blues, but with the open structure of blues the ensemble can create a big sound while maintaining the basic elements of the music.

"Most of that stuff was played with just a four-piece (band)," Bonamassa said. "Once you add a nine or 10 piece ensemble, that takes it to something else. It takes it to a Big Band sound. It takes it right out of the Mississippi Delta and straight to Chicagoland."

Bonamassa also said he felt no pressure, or obligation, to play the music exactly the way those two artists did.

"There's no reason to do that," he said. "I mean, nobody is going to beat Muddy Waters at Newport (Jazz Festival) 1960. I'm not Howlin' Wolf and there's no way I can sing like him. I can sing it this way. I can play it this way. So that's all I can do really."

Along with digging into Muddy Wolf, Bonmassa said people can expect to hear a lot of material from his latest studio effort, Different Shades of Blue, and some of his bigger hits as well.

"It's a really nice show," he said. "I'm going back to all electric this time. I won't be doing an acoustic set and an electric set, so that should be easier. Or at least easier for me. But I guess you never know."

Bonamassa said he might get in a little sight-seeing while in Chicago this time around, too. He and the band will be spending 12 nights in the city as a lot of scheduled shows after the Chicago dates are just a few hours away by bus. One stop, he said, very well could be to 2120 S. Michigan Ave., the site of Chess Studios. Plus he's got another pilgrimage planned.

"I'd like to buy the bus driver an extra cup of coffee and go to Kalamazoo, Michigan and see the old Gibson Smokestack," he said. "It's just a couple of hours from Chicago, so I think I can do it, and I've never seen the Smokestack before. So I'll take a couple of Les Pauls up there and get a photo or two."

After this tour wraps up, Bonamassa has an amphitheater tour scheduled this summer where he'll play tribute to the Three Kings of the Blues (B.B., Freddie and Albert).

"Now I've played a good one-half of the tunes on that list already," he said. "One of the big challenges is just deciding what songs to pick. I mean B.B.'s got 60 albums. Freddie's got 16 or 17 and Freddie about the same. You've got to play "The Thrill Is Gone." People are going to expect that one. We'll have to play "Pack It Up," and "We'll Meet Across the River." But the rest, we'll try to be hip and pick some good ones. That's going to be the fun part."

Joe Bonamassa performs Thursday April 16 and Friday April 17 at The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., 8 p.m. . $82.50 - $128.50