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Joe Bonamassa, forever a blues purveyor

Blues guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa performs in Baltimore this weekend.
Blues guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa performs in Baltimore this weekend. (Christie Goodwin / Handout)

Touring is a means to feed an addiction for Joe Bonamassa.

At each stop — and there will be more than 100 this year alone — the 37-year-old blues musician and self-described "nutty guitar collector" seeks out mom-and-pop music shops to possibly add to his trove of six-strings.

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But last week before a show in Toledo, Ohio, Bonamassa stared inside a couple of empty stores.

"Not as in 'closed, come back later,' but as in 'closed, never coming back, signs off the wall,'" Bonamassa said afterward on the phone.

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While Bonamassa hopes for better luck in Baltimore, where he will headline the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Friday, he admits this is an increasingly common and disheartening trend he sees on the road. But in a way, it also reinforces why Bonamassa continues to play and support blues rock, even as it's "struggling for life at the moment."

"At the end of the day, you really want to make sure that organic music — made by human beings — at least has a voice," he said.

In September, the Grammy-nominated singer and guitarist released his 11th studio album, "Different Shades of Blue," which debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 chart. Besides the cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)" that opens the record, "Blue" is Bonamassa's first album of original songs in more than a decade.

For Bonamassa, an accomplished guitarist from Utica, N.Y., who has played professionally for 25 years, filling the 11 tracks with the rough-edged riffing fans expect was the easy part. The lyrics — which he wrote with Nashville artists and writers such as James House, Jerry Flowers and Gary Nicholson — took more care.

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"I was concentrating mostly just on non-cliches," he said. "Hopefully none of my songs ever start with 'My baby left me' or 'I woke up this morning.'"

Whether it's an original song or a cover of a classic, Bonamassa's guitar playing arguably matters most to fans. In recent years, he has scaled his equipment setup down in an effort to not rely on technological bells and whistles.

"The newest piece of equipment that I have up on stage, guitar or amp wise, was made in 1965," Bonamassa said. "All I'm trying to do is simply play guitar and elicit this creativity from the instrument.

"I'm actually just plugging straight in and going. Good, bad or otherwise, at least it's honest," he said. "I've gotten more compliments for doing that than I have in a long time."

His dedication to the music goes beyond artistic output. In 2011, Bonamassa founded the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to young musicians and teaches the history of blues music. Bonamassa said the foundation's programs serve as reminders that not all music requires the sterilized polish of computer software.

"Everybody is screaming over the top of dual rectifier [amplifiers] and almost cyborg-style playing," he said. "I'm going, 'Yeah, I guess it's cool.' It's the way the kids rebel these days. But there is something beautiful and simple about human beings playing music without a net."

He is often reminded of this when he tours internationally. He and these fans may not understand each other in conversation, but his guitar breaks through all barriers, Bonamassa said.

"When you play a gig in Poland or Australia, or you play a gig in Toledo, they all clap at the same parts of the show. They're clapping for the solos in the exact same way," he said. "I just think [music] is a really, really cool, universal language."

While Bonamassa is rightfully identified as a blues singer and guitarist, he hopes fans seeing him for the first time on Friday notice his take on the genre includes other influences, such as country and rock.

"It's an eclectic night out," Bonamassa said. "I hope people come away from it going, 'I didn't really like blues when I went to the gig, but I do like it now — or at least his version of it.'"

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