"For me it was either the beginning of the beginning or the beginning of the end": the night Eric Clapton guested with Joe Bonamassa at the Royal Albert Hall and changed his career

Eric Clapton and Joe Bonamassa perform on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on May 4, 2009 in London, England
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Joe Bonamassa did not get here by accident. Looking back on his landmark Blues Deluxe album over two decades ago, he was looking at his last roll of the dice. "It was the first album I think people started to take notice, also I think it was the first album that I just did what the fuck I wanted," the guitarist told Jordi Pinyol in a recent interview. 

"This was the last shot - 20 years ago was the last shot for me. I was 25, looking down the barrel of extinction, but to be honest with you, when you're back is against the brick wall you have no other option to look forwards, so that's what I did."

It was 20 years of gradually rising trajectory, as Bonamassa's reputation spread through relentless touring in Europe and the US. More and more people took notice of the young blues-rock player's chops, and songwriting with his constantly growing stature as an entertainer. "It was the beginning of the hardest 20 fucking years of my life, but here I am, nine times platinum and whatever."

It was also a path that could hit frustrating plateaus - the guitarist was frequently snubbed by parts of the mainstream music press despite his creative achievements. But when Bonamassa played the Albert Hall on 4 May, 2009 he had a career-shifting experience; the patronage of a guitar legend who would become a friend. 

Joe Bonamassa performs on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on May 4, 2009 in London, England

Joe Bonamassa performing onstage at the Albert Hall on 4 May 2009  (Image credit: Christie Goodwin/Redferns/Getty Images)

By his own admission, Bonamassa came to the blues via the UK; Paul Kossoff, Peter Green and the towering influence that is Eric Clapton. When Slowhand stepped out with Bonamassa at the Albert Hall that night he was gifting a patronage that even Gary Moore never received from him during his lifetime. And its significance isn't been lost on Bonamassa. 

I'm at the Albert Hall because I want to be like him, and he came

"He's very, very influential to me and has been a friend for a long time," Bonamassa reflected to Pinyol. "I can never repay him for what he did because he came out and did something that turned my career around. 

"That was the biggest B12 shot I could have ever asked for, because it meant something to me and everybody saw that. It meant something, it wasn't like, what celebrity can we get to show up at this thing? No, I'm at the Albert Hall because I want to be like him, and he came. That was a big fucking deal.

The prestigious London venue is like a second home for Clapton as a performer to some degree; he's played there over 200 times. Making his appearance with Bonamassa as his guest there even more symbolic.  

The unforgettable moment the two duetted on Bobby Bland's Texas shuffle Further On Up The Road would be immortalised on the release Live From The Albert Hall and can also be seen above. Bonamassa (Les Paul) and Clapton (Strat) confidently traded licks and vocals before joining each other for a crescendo where Slowhand's smile of recognition said it all. But for Joe Bonamassa the pressure beforehand was immense.  

“For me it was either the beginning of the beginning or the beginning of the end," Bonamassa reflected with Guitarist magazine in a 2017 interview. "There was no middle ground. Either fail or succeed or just play and nobody would care, but somehow that gig turned into something that people would remember and we recorded it and that was really the beginning of this modern time in my career. It was incredibly moving and I don’t remember much about the experience because I was nervous.”

It didn't show. And for the guitarist it was not only childhood wish fulfillment, but a full circle moment; to be honoured and to honour the musician that helped set his journey as a musician in motion.

"I learned to play blues guitar just from playing along to the Beano album," he told us in 2021. "More so than even BB King, Freddie or Albert, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or Robert Johnson.

Eric Clapton was the conduit for me to get into all of those guys. And, of course, having him play with me at the Royal Albert Hall was amazing."

  • Joe Bonamassa will return to the Royal Albert Hall on 4 and 5 April 2024. More info at royalalberthall.com
Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.