KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD AND BETH HART
There are few artists whose names are synonymous with one instrument and how it's played in service to an entire genre.
Utter the phrase "young blues guitarist" within earshot of anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the modern musical vanguard and the first name they are most likely to respond with will be Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Still barely in his 30s, the Louisiana born axeman and songsmith has been selling millions of albums, throwing singles into the Top 10, shining a light on the rich blues of the past and forging ahead with his own modern twist on a classic sound he has embodied since his teens. He met Stevie Ray Vaughan at 7, shared the stage with New Orleans legend Bryan Lee at13. As an adult, he continues to create genre-defining blues-infused rock n' roll.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd's How I Go not only serves as a strong reminder of the chops that caused Guitar World to place him right behind B.B. King and Eric Clapton on their list of blues guitarists, but it's the strongest indication yet of his gifted songwriting talent. The album pairs Kenny's deeply soulful and impassioned takes on classic material like Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," Albert King's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and The Beatles "Yer Blues" alongside the strongest writing and co-writing of his career thus far.
Let's not forget that Kenny co-wrote "Blue on Black" very early on. The song was #1 on the Rock Charts for 17 consecutive weeks. All of the accolades heaped upon his playing are well deserved and well earned. But there is so much more to offer.
"At this point, most people who know about me know I can play guitar," Shepherd says. "As far as my approach to guitar on this record, it's not about showing people how much I can play. It’s about really choosing the right notes and playing them at the right times so that every note penetrates people, and they feel it inside and it’s not just some fleeting thing that just goes right by them.
"I wanted to be conservative, and selective, and tasteful in the solos that I did," he adds. "I wanted to concentrate on the song as a whole: the vocals, the arrangements, so every instrument that is being played contributes to the song and takes it to a better place."
Where Ledbetter Heights (1995) was a little more bluesy; Trouble Is… (1997) offered more blues based rock; Live On (1999) took a turn to more blues based rock; The Place You're In (2004) went straight ahead rock and the 10 Days Out (2007) documentary exemplified the best of straight blues, Kenny says this one "falls right down the middle between blues and rock."
"Never Lookin' Back" is a rocking song that sets the tone for album, with lyrics about moving on and rolling with life's punches. The song "Cryin' Shame" has that straight Texas shuffle longtime fans love to hear from Kenny and his band. "Show Me The Way Back Home" is a powerful blues ballad for the ages. "We hit a really great balance," he says of the album, which he co-produced.
"Who's Gonna Catch You Now?" is a very personal song. "I've become a father over the past couple of years. It's about a parent accepting what it's like to be a parent and having to accept a certain degree of powerlessness. It's just learning about acceptance. If you're a parent, it will pull on your heart strings for sure."
The hard-rocking, blues-based, guitar-driven album sounds young, it sounds fresh. Yet it has that distinctive energy and vibe drawn from the deep heritage of the genre. Kenny Wayne Shepherd is growing as a songwriter, musician and producer. Which isn't to say he's not proud of his past. "I don't have any regrets, other than maybe a couple of outfits that I wore on stage," he laughs.
"My approach from day one was that I was not going to record anything that I couldn't completely wrap my mind around and that I wasn't prepared to play for the rest of my career. As a result of that approach and not letting anybody talk me into doing anything that I didn't want to do, and nobody forcing me to record anything I didn't want to, I've got a body of work that I'm proud of. I still enjoy playing all of the songs off my first album. They are as much fun to play today as they were in 1995 when that album came out. I'm not one of those guys who doesn't want to listen to his own music. I don't go around listening to it all the time, but, my thing is, if I'm making music that I don't want to listen to, then why am I making music? I enjoy what I do. I have a lot of stuff that I'm proud of. Every album that we've done I've tried to do different things. I've never wanted to be an artist where people could predict what was next."
The name "Kenny Wayne Shepherd" is absolutely synonymous with "young blues guitarist" but that phrase isn't the totality of his person.
"Blues player is definitely one of the labels I've accumulated, because I'm a huge blues fan and I love to play the blues," he says. "But if you listen to my music, especially over the course of my career, everything that I do is not blues. It's the foundation of what I do, but my stuff has a lot more of an edge to it. It's a little more contemporary. And there's a certain youthfulness to what I do. I started writing and recording music when I was a teenager and that energy has been consistent throughout my career."
Last year's Live in Chicago! captured epic performances from Kenny and an assemblage of living legends in the blues world. Kenny's incredible presence and perpetually giving performances, designed to get every person in the room on their feet and to leave them smiling, are all of the evidence one needs to determine that he'll continue to do this for decades to come - just like his heroes.
"I’ve got a lot of a career left ahead of me and a lot of records left to make," he says. "I’m hoping to be playing music when I’m in my 80’s like B.B. King. I’ve got a lot more songs left in me to write and record. My fans want to hear new music, they want to hear new albums, and then when they hear a new record they want to come out and hear us play that stuff live."
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is very cognizant of the emotional role music can play in the lives of his listeners. He's in awe of that responsibility and works hard to bring happiness to people with his considerable gifts. With that said, he's bound and determined to be remembered as a guy who just straight-up kicked a lot of butt. "I get up on stage every night to play my heart out and to try to turn people on their ear, man. I want to bring light into people's lives with my music. If I can make people feel good for an hour and a half to two hours and forget about whatever might be stressing them out, then I'm doing my job."
Beth Hart is on fire. Right now, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter is riding a creative tidal wave, firing out acclaimed albums, hooking up with the biggest names in music and rocking the house each night with that celebrated burnt-honey voice. In 2016, the headline news is Beth’s latest album, Fire On The Floor, a release that even this fiercely self-critical artist describes as “pretty frickin’ good.” But let’s not forget the backstory that brought her here…
The Blues Magazine once dubbed Beth Hart “the ultimate female rock star”, and there’s no doubt that her two-decade career is the ultimate thrill-ride. Born in Los Angeles, she released a fistful of hit albums through the ’90s, then reignited in the post-millennium as both a solo artist and the head-turning vocalist for guitar heroes like Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck and Slash. “Extraordinary,” wrote The Times of her once-a-generation voice box, while The Guardian praised her “daring, brooding and angry” performances.
But it’s in recent times that Beth has truly blossomed. In April 2015, she released Better Than Home, a critical and commercial smash that topped the iTunes Blues Chart and was crowned #4 Best Blues Album Of The Year by Mojo magazine. The release also reached #1 in the Dutch charts and helped Beth to fill Amsterdam’s Heineken Music Hall with 5,500 fans (her largest club show to date). “Oh, that was so good, man,” she reflects. “I love Holland. They’ve been really good to me.”
The US market has embraced her, too, with Beth packing ever-larger venues in major cities on the Better Than Home tour – including Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium – and receiving a nomination from the American Blues Foundation in the category of Contemporary Blues Female Artist. “It’s unbelievable,” she admits. “This last tour, we were playing much bigger houses than I’d ever played in the States – and they were sold-out.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Beth’s rocketing UK profile has never been higher. Recent years have seen auspicious headline sets at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican (not to mention the historic Hampton Court Palace with Joe Bonamassa), and in December 2015, she chalked up another first with a spot on Jools Holland’s legendary annual Hootenanny.
Bringing in the New Year with a soulful take on Tell Her You Belong To Me and Nutbush City Limits alongside long-time collaborator Jeff Beck, it spoke volumes that the pair’s performance rapidly became the Hootenanny’s most-watched clip on the BBC’s official YouTube channel (even overtaking heavyweights like Tom Jones and Paul Weller). “Every time Jeff performs, he just kills it,” gushes Beth, who also joins the veteran guitarist for her first-ever appearance at the Hollywood Bowl this year. “To me, he’s the greatest ever.”
Just as memorable, also last December, was Beth’s first solo gig at London’s Union Chapel (subsequently voted by fans as the venue’s gig of the year). “It was the most terrifying experience of my entire life,” she admits. “I got up there and I was so frickin’ scared. But then, halfway through the show, I just started to enjoy it. By the end, I felt so connected to the audience, and I really felt like they did that show with me. It was like we were all the band.”
A highlight of that Union Chapel show was a heartfelt rendition of Mama This One’s For You (included on Better Than Home as a bonus track). The audience’s reaction lit a lightbulb, and in early 2016, the singer announced a contest inviting fans to submit footage of themselves with their mothers, for inclusion in a special Mama video released for Mother’s Day. “I cried when I saw the edited version for the first time,” Beth recalls. “I love my own mom more than anything in the world, and I found it so touching and beautiful.”
Beth’s passion for collaboration also continues apace in 2016. On the heels of 2011’s Don’t Explain and 2013’s Grammy-nominated Seesaw, there’ll be another studio hook-up between the singer and blues titan Joe Bonamassa, with sessions set for August. “I’m really interested in us doing stuff from the ’40s and ’50s,” she reveals. “Rock ‘n’ roll, torch songs and jazz songs…”
For now, though, Beth’s focus is Fire On The Floor: a new studio album sure to build on her breakneck momentum. As the singer explains, this latest record gave her an emotional release following the bitter-sweet sessions for Better Than Home. If there’s a theme that ties these twelve songs together, it’s a sense of escapism following the hardest of times. “We were still in the mixing stages for that album and I knew I had to make another record. Making Better Than Home was so painful, because one of the producers, Michael Stevens, was dying of cancer. It was a very emotional record to write and to make. I wanted the songs for Fire On The Floor to get born real quick.”
Beth’s first call was to the acclaimed producer Oliver Leiber, who called a session at his home studio in Toluca Lake and drafted a crack studio band that included Michael Landau (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Brian Allen (bass), Rick Marotta (drums), Jim Cox (piano), Dean Parks (acoustic guitar) and Ivan Neville (B3 and organ). “Oliver rounded up some amazing musicians,” nods Beth. “Michael Landau and Waddy Wachtel are legends, so when I found out we had them, I just couldn’t believe it. If you don’t have great musicians, you’re not gonna have a very good record, are you?
“We recorded sixteen songs in three days,” continues Beth of the quick fire LA sessions, “but then we spent a long time mixing. Oliver is a brutally hard-working person, but he’s also incredibly sensitive and that combination works so great. He’s strong and focused, but still so vulnerable, and his heart is wide open. I’m so proud of what he did on this record.”
Take a spin of Fire On The Floor and you’ll see exactly why. These twelve new songs run the gamut of genre, reflecting Beth’s eclectic teenage influences, which took in everything from gospel, soul and classical to the seismic rock of Soundgarden. “As a writer,” she nods, “I feel really stifled if I’m trying to write in the same style. I just can’t do that. Growing up as a kid, I was raised all over the place stylistically, loving so many different genres.”
As such, you’ll find everything from the spring-heeled soul of Let’s Get Together to the brittle rock of Fat Man. “I love that song,” she says of the latter. “That’s actually a co-write with a wonderful songwriter named Glen Burtnik, who I started writing with when I was about 24. We wrote that seven years ago – just a basic skeleton – but then I got super-inspired and wrote out the lyric. It feels good to sing it. That’s what’s so great about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s just such a fantastic way to let out your angst.”
Likewise, the title track: “I love Fire On The Floor. It’s just smoldering. I think it’s gonna be a fantastic piece to perform live. It’s filled with passion. It’s about when someone you know is so bad for you, but you can’t help it. Then there’s No Place Like Home. I love that song. It’s about how, like, you spend a lot of time on the road, and you start to realize all the great things about being home. Kinda the opposite to the song Better Than Home.”
Other upbeat highlights include the salsa-tinged Baby Shot Me Down and the jazz-inflected Coca Cola, with a vocal that reminds you why Beth was recently voted as the 20th best blues singer of all-time in The Blues. “Vocally, that one takes me back to a Billie Holiday kinda singing,” she reflects. “I love that kind of vibe, like a light, fun sexiness.”
By contrast, there are some songs that Beth had to wrench from the emotional depths. “Picture In A Frame is a big one for me,” she says. “When I started writing it, I was thinking about being in love with my husband. But when I was done, I could see that I really connected it with Michael Stevens, and it was my way of saying to him, y’know, ‘I just want you to be better’.”
Despite all the emotionally bare moments, for Beth, this record represents a catharsis. “I think Better Than Home is one of the best records I’ve ever done,” she says, “but it was a brutal experience. Fire On The Floor has more energy and I think, overall, it’s just got more balls. And I think I really needed that, just to balance out that heavier mood on Better Than Home.”
Fire On The Floor is the album that Beth Hart needed to make. Likewise, it’s a record that you need to hear. “I’m so pleased with it,” she concludes. “I recently had to organize the sequence of the record, and while I was doing that, I was thinking to myself, ‘Y’know, this is pretty frickin’ good…!’”
- Fri, July 27, 2018 - 7:30 PM Add to cal
- Fri, July 27, 2018
Doors - 6:30 PM
Concert - 7:30PM
The Palace Theatre
Albany, New York
- $74.75 / $59.75 / $49.75 / $39.75 / $34.75
- All Ages Admitted / 21 to drink