Plays like a man who believes his best work is still ahead of him.
There’s a certain kind of blues guitarist who churns out albums on the regular, disregarding songwriting and focusing instead on wheeling out an endless stream of solos and half-baked lyrical ideas that seem like The Blues. The perpetrators lurk around the Midwest, stalking their prey, those hapless folks eager for a night of entertainment who have somehow become convinced that the ability to wheedle until the break of dawn supplants the genuine ability to write, play and sing. Not so for Kenny Wayne Shepherd. His latest album, Lay it on Down, proves he’s the real thing.
Shepherd could have gotten away with coasting on the reputation of early career hits. He’s thoroughly capable of a meaningful solo that would choke up any roadhouse veteran more than any mere technical display from the likes of Joe Satriani. But on his new album, the astute arranger and taste-driven musician plays like a man who believes his best work is still ahead of him.
His 2014 release Goin’ Home was for the most part traditional blues, but this time he’s more eclectic, touching on hard rock and country. Opener “Baby Got Gone” says its peace and gets out in little more than three minutes, hitting with an intensity normally reserved for hardcore punk and thrash metal. “Diamonds & Gold” takes more time, replete with funky horns, fat back rhythms and some wah-wah work that might make Jimi Hendrix himself take notice. It steps and struts with a confidence and swagger more in tune with Prince than Buddy Guy, though nothing about it betrays Shepherd’s roots.
Shepherd has been at this long enough that he gets to write his own rules, dodging or embracing tradition as necessary. He can walk the fine line between as on “Nothing but the Night,” which recalls Journeyman-era Clapton but takes it into deeper, darker territories where Slowhand would never tread. These are the corners where a player truly lays himself bare, displaying his fears and accomplishments in equal measure.
“Laying it on Down” reunites Shepherd with Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, who helped pen his monumental “Blue on Black.” If that staple seemed at times dashed off with the urgency and forethought of a drunken telegram, this new piece is never less than contemplative, measured and fully realized. Not that Shepherd has become some sort of intellectual. Witness “She’s $$$,” a bright-burning bit of roadhouse sass.
His ferocity and sincerity are in ample supply on the Smithereens-cum-Fabulous Thunderbirds “How Long Can You Go” and the Double Trouble-tinged “Down for Love,” either of which would seem ready for their radio spotlight. Legions of the guitar faithful should be blown away by this facility and fire, and Shepherd proves that he’s also a man of wealth and taste, allowing lyrics and other instruments the chance to blaze their own trails and singe our epidermis.
Are there faults? Sure. The eclecticism could read as a conscious decision to grab more listeners with higher quality honey, but you’ll be hard-pressed to hold back the tears during “Hard Lesson Learned” or the air guitar during the closing “Ride of Your Life.” What more could a roots fan want?