Joe Bonamassa is like the Lady Gaga of the blues — and not because he wears funny outfits, which he doesn’t, aside from the sunglasses at night.
Rather, he’s a lightning rod for praise and scorn, something that comes with the territory of being hailed as one of the greatest living guitarists and drawing crowds as big as he does.
After a showcase here in 2002 opening for B.B. King, he became the kind of journeyman blues player who did Moondog’s and the Rex until the PBS specials kicked in, opening him up to that huge pledge audience that supports everything from Celtic Woman to Brit Floyd.
That’s why the Benedum was packed Tuesday night for a tour that offered a new twist: Joe Bonamassa opening for himself with an unplugged set. Although he was surrounded by eight acoustic guitars and used them all — for nine songs! — the set was more about the songs than the solos as he delved into crisp Celtic folk and blues textures with fiddler Gerry O’Connor, conga master Lenny Castro, keyboardist Derek Sherinian and Mats Wester on the unique bowed nyckelharpa and mandola.
Along with ably covering Bad Company (“Seagull”), Tom Waits (“Jockey Full of Bourbon”) and Chris Whitley (“Ball Peen Hammer”), he did such originals as the ’70s-rockish “Driving Towards the Daylight” and “Athens to Athens,” flying over the frets with Mediterranean speed and spice.
Mr. Bonamassa is no Waits, Whitley or Rodgers in the vocal department, which has been one of the knocks on him as a frontman. Hendrix. Clapton, and SRV were unique in being rock guitar heroes as well as forceful singers, and while Mr. Bonamassa is no slouch, he doesn’t quite muster that grit (and there, folks, is another thing to argue).
The electric set — adding drummer Tal Bergman and bassist Carmine Rojas and subtracting O’Connor and Wester — was an all-out pyro show with Mr. Bonamassa lighting into one killer jam after another, while wearing his British influences on his pin-striped suit sleeve: Clapton on “Dust Bowl,” Jimmy Page on “Oh Beautiful” and “The Ballad of John Henry,” Jeff Beck on “Blues Deluxe.”
Although people say he’s a more technical than emotional player, you could certainly feel it in spots, including the “Django/Mountain Time” finale. While the 36-year-old is still building toward a sound of his own, it’s hard to walk out of one of his shows not a little blown away.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.