Joe Bonamassa astonishes in Anaheim

Fretwork aficionados in Southern California had an old-vs.-new choice to make Thursday night: Would it be smarter to take in another reliable yet undoubtedly routine set from B.B. King at House of Blues Anaheim, keenly aware that any local appearance from the 85-year-old ambassador of the blues might be his last?

Or would it be wiser to find a way into the very sold-out (and newly renamed) City National Grove of Anaheim further on up Katella Avenue, knowing it might be the smallest place we’ll be able to see Joe Bonamassa headline for a while?

My guess is it was an easy call for most true believers: Bonamassa over B.B. (bless his soul) all the way. The beast that is the blues requires active participation to keep breathing, never mind evolving. Those who wish to see it thrive must forge ahead and support what few truly jaw-dropping new talents actually come along, rather than reel back in our recliners to once more savor fundamental glories.

The ironic turnabout occurring within a mile of each other Thursday night surely wasn’t lost on guitar-god followers, either. Here’s Bonamassa, nearly 10 studio albums in at just 33, selling out the larger of the two venues with his first performance of 2011, kicking off a new tour behind his ninth sharp solo disc (Dust Bowl, due March 22), when two decades ago the Utica, N.Y., native was a preteen novelty wunderkind opening for King, one of his earliest idols. [More…]

King, who appeared on a version of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” from last year’s Bonamassa album Black Rock, was one of few American roots men to catch the kid’s interest early on. Bedrock influences — Robert Johnson, Guitar Slim, John Lee Hooker — always mattered, infiltrating his psyche from the time he picked up guitar, at 4.

But until recent albums like Black Rock and The Ballad of John Henry (2009) the relative minimalism of such fundamental forces hadn’t inspired half as much of Bonamassa’s work as the thunderous inventions of the English and Irish lords of the late ’60s/early ’70s: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green (of the early Fleetwood Mac), Paul Kossoff (of Free), especially Eric Clapton and unsung Rory Gallagher.

Where other new American masters like Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes primarily worship at the altar of Duane Allman, Bonamassa grew up transfixed by such British blues-rock, and his love and knowledge of its round table runs deep: he surely lamented the recent loss of Gary Moore, for instance. And when you gaze at him adding distinctively Framptonesque flourishes to the Ezrin/Kamen composition “Sloe Gin,” as he did with a watchmaker’s delicate precision at the Grove, you instantly realize he’s heard a whole lot more of that ever-underrated Humble Pie guitarist’s work than Frampton Comes Alive!

Yet, rather stupefyingly at a time when blues-rock mutations are more in vogue than in years — thanks mainly to the work of Jack White and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach — Joe Bonamassa, a virtuoso who could spin circles around the estimable White and Auerbach, isn’t remotely as well-known in his home country.

He’s increasingly huge overseas, especially in the U.K., where the music press has raved about him for years and where, in 2009, he rapidly sold out the Royal Albert Hall — and had Clapton as a special guest for “Further On Up the Road.” Back here, however, even in Southern California where his visibility is high, he’s been lucky to land 2,000-capacity shows. Until this Grove gig, he hadn’t appeared anywhere in Orange County larger than the Coach House or the Galaxy Theatre, at roughly 500-600 a night.

But that seems certain to change sooner than later, as Bonamassa’s star finally appears to be rising dramatically stateside, spiking higher with each new move since that London show, which is now a staple of satellite HD music programming as well as a successful CD/DVD release.

Curiously, none of this stuff has nabbed any deserved Grammy nominations, yet his albums, virtually all champs on Billboard’s blues chart, have begun to break out of that niche and sell in bigger numbers. Meanwhile, Black Country Communion, a supergroup created with one-time Deep Purple bassist and vocalist Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin’s anchor), has helped him gain notice with a hard-rock crowd still stuck in its KLOS ways.

Many of them discovered last year’s Bonamasssa effort Black Rock, which further solidified his versatility, broadening his already-cemented reputation as a world-class six-stringer with eclectic taste (check out his rethinking of Yes’ “Starship Trooper”) to include earthier acoustic blues and fresh takes on John Hiatt, who appears on Dust Bowl in a new version of his “Tennessee Plates,” and Leonard Cohen, whose signature dirge “Bird on a Wire” is reborn in Bonamassa’s hands as something altogether more soulful and yearning.

Thursday night, in an encore that started with that piece and ended with a rollicking rip through ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” (with the evening’s star on Flying V guitar), it was Bonamassa’s startlingly passionate voice, not his physics-defying finger-dancing, that made the song so resonant. A dead-ringer for Paul Rodgers, with a hint of Gregg Allman gruff tossed in for extra bite, Bonamassa can grab you almost as forcefully with his vocals as with his playing. Seeing as it emerges from a too-cool dude in a slick black suit, it can take you aback; you don’t expect him to sing so convincingly.

But his fretwork is positively astounding, a mind-boggling wonder that will floor you. It isn’t just that he can riff with Vai dexterity or sail through scale inversions at Satriani speed — and with staccato-crisp efficiency at that. It’s that he does it all with so much feel. He’s all the brash passion of White and Auerbach fused to the jet propulsion and sonic dazzle of Jeff Beck.

And he amalgamates from song to song. One moment he’s locked into a gut-bucket raw groove and dappling it with Stevie Ray Vaughan finesse, as on the new “You Better Watch Yourself,” which, like Dust Bowl’s title track, debuted Thursday night. The next he’s taken flight into realms few tread: the weeping soar of David Gilmour or Jimmy Page (as on “The Great Flood,” evoking memories of Zep’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You”), or the grandeur of Brian May, or Pete Townshend’s aggression on a Who-like handling of “Young Man Blues” (with Bonamassa on a double-necked guitar, one of several Gibsons he used here).

Throughout all of it, 20 songs in more than two hours, Bonamassa’s playing was as liquid as fast-flowing lava, molten and glowing vividly; the only reason he broke a sweat behind his ever-present dark shades is because he refuses to coast, insisting on pushing himself and his crack band — unerring bassist Carmine Rojas, keysman Rick Melick and strong new drummer Tal Bergman — harder and farther with each epic workout.

I haven’t seen anything so dazzling since Stevie Ray at the Wiltern in ’86 — and I’ve seen Clapton be deliriously great more than a few times since then. Bonamassa is a rare creature indeed: unquestionably among our greatest living guitarists, he’s destined to be counted among the greatest of all-time before he’s done.