Bet you didn't think Lexington had anything in common with St. Petersburg, Russia. That it does is just one fact that surfaced during a phone chat with guitarist Joe Bonamassa.
The global guitar hero plays a significant role in that link. Bonamassa managed to sell out significant venues during his first visits to both cities. In our case, the event was two years ago, when he filled the Lexington Opera House with little promotion and next to no radio airplay.
"St. Petersburg, ... same situation as you guys," Bonamassa said. "Sold out the place the first time in. People were singing songs back to us in both places, too. I mean, that's awesome. You're just left going, 'Dude, this is pretty crazy.'"
Lexington gets Round 2 on Friday, when the guitarist plays Rupp Arena. The venue will use a half-house seating configuration for the performance, but there is no mistaking that Bonamassa will be playing the big house.
"It's been a nice progression over the years," Bonamassa, 34, said of his steadily mounting popularity. "It's just been this nice organic build. Nothing happened overnight, and there is still a long ways to go. But everything is still fresh for me. It's still exciting. And I like my 13th album even more than my first. With a lot of artists, the opposite is the case."
Bonamassa's 13th album — his count includes a 2011 collaborative effort with Beth Hart and two records with the blues-rock supergroup Black Country Communion — is Driving Towards the Daylight. Due out May 22, the recording is something of a return to form for Bonamassa. Its cover material boasts a broad stylistic reach — from roots-music icons Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon to comparatively contemporary stylists Tom Waits, Buddy Miller, Bill Withers and Jimmy Barnes. Yet the dominant sound on the record belongs to the blues music that placed a 12-year-old Bonamassa onstage with the likes of B.B. King.
"This album was a real benchmark for us. We just had a lot of fun making it."
But to call Driving Towards the Daylight a blues record in any conventional or even traditional sense is misleading. Bonamassa is a major devotee of the electric British blues that came to North America in the wake of John Mayall's first Bluesbreakers bands of the 1960s.
An exceptional case in point is Daylight's rendition of the Johnson blues classic Stones in My Passway. Instead of the wiry blues sway in which the song is rooted, Bonamassa plugs into a chunky electric grind that immediately brings to mind the playing of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
"That's just a different take on a Robert Johnson tune," Bonamassa said. "It's all in a Zep mode, for sure. I imagined how Led Zeppelin would sound doing that song. I used a 12-string — a 12-string electric double-neck guitar, the kind Jimmy Page used to play. But playing slide on it gave the song a kind of Leadbelly feel. In the end, it became this big, stomping thing."
On a more modern overseas roots-rock tip comes A Place in My Heart, a rich, slow-blues song written by longtime Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden but played with the rockish intensity of Irish guitarist Gary Moore, who died last year.
"We just tried to make that one our homage to Mr. Moore," Bonamassa said.
Incorporating all of those inspirations is the album-opening Bonamassa original Dislocated Boy, on which churchy keyboards meet a steadfast guitar charge to trigger a blues-rock drive straight out of 1971.
"That came from the same school as the song The Ballad of John Henry (the title tune to Bonamassa's 2009 folk-blues-oriented album). I wrote it really quick, and it just came together — this big, swampy blues song. I wish they all came that fast."
With Daylight hitting stores just before Memorial Day weekend, it would seem a given that Bonamassa will spend much of the summer on the road promoting it. But because he has spent the first half of 2012 touring, the summer will be a vacation period. Once fall arrives, Bonamassa will embark on a short acoustic tour of Europe, which will be filmed for a DVD, and then plug in for shows in Southeast Asia, Australia and Japan, further nurturing an international fan base that has remained loyal throughout his career.
"I made my notoriety overseas," he said. "A lot of times, I'm still viewed in this country as an international artist. Not a day goes by when somebody goes, 'Oh, thank you for coming all the way from London to play here.' And I'm like, 'Dude. I live in California. I'm American.' But to be thought of as British? Hey, that's pretty cool, too."