'I didn't get into this to become a rock star. I got into it to make enough money to buy another guitar," says Joe Bonamassa, enjoying a glass of wine in the green room just minutes before taking the stage for his Siam Pavalai Theatre concert last week.
Once he strides into the stage lights wearing a black shirt, black slacks and dark wrap-around shades, he looks more like Agent Smith in The Matrix than the pudgy lad who was sitting in on Danny Gatton gigs when he was 11, and who opened for B.B. King at the age of 12.
Now 35 years old, Bonamassa no longer opens for his heroes, having become, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, a guitar hero in his own right. His 11th studio album, Driving Towards The Daylight, reached No2 in the UK Top 40 Albums Chart upon its release in May this year, and he has been touring the world almost constantly since.
"I call this the 'I Live In An Airport Tour'," he jokes. "But I like being on the road, being paid to travel and see stuff."
Of Bangkok, Bonamassa says: "It's really cool. I keep coming across scenes right out of Blade Runner. You see an alley with a bunch of cats grilling shrimp and sugarcane, then there's a Buddhist temple and next door, a Deutsche Bank.
"People back home have funny ideas about Bangkok, you know? OK, it's tolerant about certain vices, but that's not all there is. It's like if you go to Amsterdam, everyone says, 'Oh you're gonna smoke weed', but I don't smoke weed. I'm actually gonna dig the town!"
The blonde guitarist from New York kicks off the show alone, sitting down to sing and play a couple of songs on acoustic guitar before being joined by percussionist Tal Bergman for a more rousing sit-down number. His fingerpicking is masterful, and Bonamassa's full and soulful singing voice proves he has moved on from being a geeky ex-bedroom shredder.
Standing up to strap on a Les Paul plugged into three Marshal half-stacks, he leads his bandmates through two hours of solid showmanship, mixing a handful of blues and rock classics among his own well-written original songs.
The audience is especially appreciative when he launches into Blues Deluxe, a Jeff Beck Group tune from 1968 that Bonamassa has re-popularised.
Backstage, Bonamassa said of Beck: "I think he's the best rock guitar player on the planet."
Yet now he makes the song his own, without unleashing a single Beck riff, and by taking a completely different vocal approach from that of Beck's then-unknown singer, Rod Stewart.
Throughout the concert Bonamassa gives it his all, with more freshness and originality in his guitar playing than we've heard in years. He chooses his notes more carefully, building each solo so that it follows an emotional arc rather than simply showing off his skills.
When he does resort to speed _ and this is a guitarist capable of blinding speed when he feels like it _ he saves it for the climax of a solo, and keeps it relatively short.
Meanwhile his singing voice, showing more maturity and dynamics than ever, takes on a role in the performance that is near-equal to that of his guitar.
Bonamassa and band finish with a steamrolling encore that dips into the Led Zeppelin catalogue briefly, including a few note-for-note Jimmy Page passages, the only time in the evening that we hear his musical mentors quoted directly.
If there is anything to criticise about the very entertaining and more-than-competently performed show, it's that Bonamassa takes few risks. We don't get the impression that he played anything tonight that has never been heard before. Some musicians _ Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix come to mind _ were especially thrilling to see because their performances would "walk the tightrope". We might be lucky enough to see something brilliant that was never heard before. Conversely, there was a risk that the experimentation would fall flat.
A little more danger in a Bonamassa show would be interesting. Groups such as The Black Keys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have showed us that there is still a lot of room for experimentation in blues rock.
Bonamassa is an anomaly, an artist who developed tremendous technique well before he had much life experience.
In that way, Bonamassa is perhaps like a former child actor who learned how to act sufficiently well early on but who may not be as impressive or as communicative as an actor who started later in life, and who builds on real-life experience, rather than imagined life experience.
Bonamassa seems bright enough to have figured this out and to be working towards a solution. Perhaps the heavy touring schedule is his way of learning more about the outside world, to feed that experiential side of his playing.
Perhaps he's thinking: "Right, I've got the chops _ now I need to live."
Enlightened Planet, as always, is to be commended for their excellent concert production.
About the author
Writer: Joe Cummings