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Wednesday, 26 April 2006 00:00

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Powerhouse blues prodigy leaves WCU’s Ramsey Center in his wake

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First, an admission: I didn’t get to talk to Kenny Wayne Shepherd at all. No interview or anything.

Kind of a bummer, because it means I couldn’t ask him how it feels to look back on a performing and recording career that began while he was still in his mid-teens. His debut, 1997’s Ledbetter Heights, went certified platinum, and both Trouble Is ... and Live On earned Grammy nominations in 1999.

I didn’t find out what it was like to be included on the 1997 G3 tour (with guitar monsters Joe Satriani and Steve Vai) at the ripe old age of 19.

Nor could I inquire as to the sheer joy he might be feeling to have two living examples of modern blues history as his current rhythm section: Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton of Double Trouble.

Nope, I couldn’t ask him about any of this stuff.

But what I could do (and did) was take a seat and get promptly blown away by a young musician with an absolute command of high-octane blues, who can summon a whirlwind of Stevie Ray, Hendrix, Buddy Guy and a few Kings (Albert and Freddy) at the drop of a hat. From the downbeat of the first tune, Shepherd was set on stun — no easing into the set, warming up with something “light” or the like.

With his usual bevy of custom shop Stratocasters in tow and a pile of amps turned up way, way past eleven, Shepherd and company positively tore into “Somehow, Somewhere, Some way” and “King’s Highway” from Trouble Is... Chris Layton’s floor tom was a cannon, and the effortless, airtight groove he and Tommy Shannon can lay down is truly something for any musician to behold.

Though much was made of the stylistic shift Shepherd’s 2004 release The Place You’re In represented, none of its material, little of his vocals nor much of the album’s hard rock swagger were present here. Longtime KWS band vocalist Noah Hunt handled vocal duties soulfully, and the crowd that gathered at the Ramsey Center roared an enthusiastic approval to the question, “Do you guys mind if we play some blues tonight?”

And that’s what they did, mingling powerful renditions of BB King’s “Woke Up This Morning” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “I’m Leaving You” with a slew of originals. As the chorus of “Blue on Black” approached, it was obvious that Shepherd suffers no shortage of fans in this neck of the woods — they were singing along way before anyone in the band had to encourage it.

I’m not sure if this still needs to be said, but I guess I’ll toss it out there anyway: Yes, Kenny Wayne Shepherd draws a huge part of his vocabulary from the late, wonderful Stevie Ray Vaughn. This has been apparent from the get-go, and initially shocking to hear for the first time years ago because of his age — 18-year-olds just aren’t supposed to be able to play like that, right? And of course, many critics dismissed it as parroting and a lack of a personal (or an undeveloped) voice on the instrument. But the thing is that all artists are really just a sum of their influences: it’s the authenticity of the voice they develop through this synthesis of influence that we recognize as “them.”

With more than a decade gone by since that first album and introduction to Kenny Wayne Shepherd, it seemed pointless to worry anymore about who sounds like what. All I’m thinking is that this guy onstage in the all-stars and blue jeans, with the road-worn guitar and the huge tone, is playing this music absolutely for real; from the gut, the heart and anywhere else he needs to.

I watched Chris Layton keep his eye on Shepherd just as he did Stevie, waiting for the signal that things were about to take off, and Tommy Shannon swayed and thumped in that almost too relaxed way he’s always had. They played like a blues band, and when they lit into “Texas Flood” late in the set, it really was kind of chilling.

Halfway through the song, Shepherd was shaking his left hand, and signaled his tech over to the side of the stage. I saw the tech squeeze some super glue into the guitarist’s cut, bruised and battered fingertips. Shepherd blew on them to help the glue dry, and he then proceeded to rip a hole the size of Texas in the middle of the song. No copycat syndrome, no mimicry; if anything he was channeling something much bigger and powerful than a handful of well-practiced licks. The music seemed to just move through him, and if there’s any similarity still worth pointing out between he and SRV, that would be it.

Closing with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” set the stage for another barrage of blues fury, and it was almost cut short by a faulty cable in Shepherd’s rig. This kind of thing could truly “kill the vibe” for any musician, especially in the middle of a tune that’s already rocking, let alone the big encore. As the problem was being worked out, Layton and Shannon quietly simmered away, and once the offending cable was replaced, Shepherd brought the whole thing way down, and then built it up bigger and badder than before.

As many times as this song has been covered, when it’s done justice, there’s really nothing quite like it. Ending in a crackling, feedback-laden explosion, there wasn’t anything that could follow it, and even if there was, it’s unlikely anybody’s eardrums would’ve lived through it.

Frankly, Kenny Wayne Shepherd played his ass off for an hour and a half in front of a crowd that loved it, with one of the best rhythm sections in the history of the universe, and demonstrated a gritty authority and confidence that’s nothing short of inspiring. My ears rang for days, and all I wanted to hear Saturday at work was Freddie King and Hendrix.

I’ve made the point that the idea of the “guitar hero” isn’t dead, and was never really a bad thing, though some interpreted it as such. This show was further proof that we still want to be amazed, to see someone with the skills to do so lay it out there for all to see, and that the blues will always be a language every single one of us understands. One can only hope that the band felt something as well, and will make the trek up the mountain again sometime. Soon.

How many stars? What do you think? Yep, that would be 5.

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