Two of contemporary blues’ most dominant forces, Kenny Wayne and Robert Cray, come to Monterey for one mega-show.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
On the morning after President Barack Obama’s victory, Kenny Wayne Shepherd doesn’t have anything to say on the election.
“I don’t get into politics because people can get so heated about it,” he says. “I’m proud to be an American and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but that’s a subject I like to avoid.”
While Shepherd dodges politics, he has plenty in common with the presidential candidates, at least on one front: He’s reached endless middle-class Americans on his current tour. From Flint, Mich. to Clearwater, Fla., to tonight’s show at the Golden State Theatre, Shepherd has pretty much lived on the road for the past year and a half. He has somehow managed, however, to fit in time to record a new album due out next year. Unlike his six previous studio LPs, Shepherd recorded it in his hometown of Shreveport, La.
“There’s finally a studio there,” he says. “It’s something Shreveport was really lacking.”
He brought in local musicians, including the music teacher from his middle school and high school, and recorded the way bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins did more than half a century earlier: live in the studio with all the musicians performing in the same room. They didn’t use isolation booths, Auto Tune or Quick Track, and everything was recorded on two-inch tape.
“We recreated the old-school way they would’ve done it when the songs we played were originally recorded,” Shepherd says. “It’s a very traditional style of recording and it was really refreshing.”
Many of the tunes Shepherd chose to include are little-known obscurities like Lee Dorsey’s “Can You Hear Me.”
“My goal on albums is to take songs that aren’t the most obvious and try to expose my fans to some artists they may not be aware of,” he says.
Shepherd also maintained a strict diet while adhering to the recording logistics of a bygone era. Southern Maid Donuts, the only commercial spot Elvis ever did, was one of his main sources of fuel.
“We consumed plenty of donuts,” he says. “The culture there is very much about eating together. Donuts, fried chicken, barbecue, Tex-Mex and blues, basically.”
Though just 35, the self-taught prodigy has been unloading blues on the world for more than two decades – and he’s already decided that he’ll never retire.
“The great thing about blues music is you can play it your entire life,” Shepherd says. “Most of my heroes have careers till the day they die.”
On his 2011 How I Go, which he’s currently touring behind, Shepherd and his trusty Fender Strat rework a broad spectrum of songs including Albert King’s funky Memphis blues number “Oh, Pretty Woman” and Bessie Smith’s primitive and piano-heavy “Blackwater Blues.” But Shepherd’s take on The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” is the standout: What is already heavy, electrified blues that wales with pre-grunge angst is taken to new rocking levels all while remaining respectful of Lennon’s original vision. Shepherd pulls at his guitar strings with fury, bending each distorted note toward climactic satisfaction.
Playing with emotion hasn’t been difficult for Shepherd as of late, thanks to all his stops in cities hit hardest by the recession. But he sees music as an important creature that brings people of all economic classes together.
“These people save their money and come to see us play,” he says. “I feel like it’s an opportunity to forget about all the stuff that’s bringing them down so I take that opportunity to bring something positive into their life, if only for two hours.”
One of the keys to Shepherd’s longevity is his ability to connect with his fans. Staying humble helps.
“There’s always someone better and there’s always more for me to learn,” he says. “I don’t have to be the best ever, I just want to feel like I did something good with the gifts I was given.”
Robert Cray, also performing tonight with his band, has been driving home his definitive soul-soaked blues since the year Shepherd was born.
The Georgia native’s unorthodox crossover blues has both garnered admirable accolades – Cray has been nominated for 15 Grammys and won five – and been criticized by blues purists, a group that Cray refers to as “bluenatics.”
No matter what your feelings are on Cray’s brand of the blues, he’s one of the only bluesmen that’s been consistently churning out original, well-known blues tunes over the past three decades.
“The usual guy puts out a record, you play it and you forget about it,” Scott Hammer, host of “Hambone’s Blues Party” on jazz and blues station WDCB in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. “But not Robert Cray. Those songs have legs.”
The Blues Hall of Famer released his 16th studio album, Nothin But Love, last August, but his 1986 double platinum Strong Persuader still holds up as one of the greatest blues records made in the last 40 years – and it’s also known for introducing the blues to a generation of rock fans who hadn’t previously explored the genre.
The LP opener “Smoking Gun,” emits a Otis Redding sexiness that rarely exists in the blues and “Nothing But a Woman,” featuring the Memphis Horns, explodes with a funkiness you’d expect on a Booker T. record.
It speaks to one of Cray’s best qualities: his ability to keep the century-old genre fresh and relevant.
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND and ROBERT CRAY BAND perform starting at 8pm Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $39.50; $52.50. 297-2472.