Kenny Wayne Shepherd chatted to Pete Feenstra about his new album ‘Lay It On Down’. First broadcast 23 July on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.
Provogue [Release date 04.08.17]
When you sign a multi-album deal with Warner Brothers as a teenager and cut a killer debut ‘Ledbetter Heights’, you clearly set yourself a high standards.
22 years later, the 40 year old Kenny Wayne Shepherd is still an innovative force in the blues-rock world. His new ‘Lay It On Down’ CD is his most mature work to date, as he pushes the envelope into a range of blues related styles.
His initial career impact was always due to the fact that he was already schooled in the blues before he struck out in his own direction. He also quickly outgrew SRV influences to find his own niche. And it’s that same broad based blues-rock niche, that he has honed and polished down the years, that makes ‘Lay It On Down’ such a well rounded effort.
It’s an instantly accessible album from the catchy hook of the opening ‘Baby Got Gone’, and the intricately worked title track ballad (reprised with a great vocal as a book-end to the album), through to the booming shuffle of ‘Ride Of Your Life’.
‘Lay It On Down’ is very much a contemporary blues-rock album that draws on blues, rock, country, soul, funk, R&B and contrasting narratives.
It’s characterized by the consistent thread at the heart of his career, which is to take blues in different directions. Spread over 10 cleverly sequenced songs, ‘Lay It On Down’ sounds like an old fashioned album that draws the listener into a musical journey, but is hip enough interest the download generation looking for individual tracks.
The album is predicated on a Nashville song driven sensibility, with the emphasis on big hooks and sumptuous guitar tones, as on the soulful funk of ‘Diamonds & Gold’. This track features the kind of horn stabs that push the song into a dance friendly radio territory, before the sting in the tail as Kenny adds coruscating wah-wah.
There’s an undeniable commercial imperative that drives the rig remorselessly forward towards radio plays. But no musical genre – especially the blues – can afford the luxury of fossilizing and ‘Lay It On Down’ is as good an example of contemporary blues as I’ve heard all year.
KWS explores his own version of nouveau blues based on the perfect equilibrium of a real band framed by a sympathetic production and deft arrangements that allow enough room for his sparkling guitar work to satisfy longer term fans.
Producer Marshall Alltman’s attention to sonic detail pays rich dividends and pushes Kenny to the best vocals of his career, especially on tracks like ‘Diamonds & Gold’. This is also surely due to his integral role in a parallel career project with The Rides, a band in which he’s visibly grown in stature alongside Steve Stills.
Listen for example, to ‘Down For Love’ which could easily fit into The Rides repertoire, but is probably more of a reflection of what KWS brings to that band, rather than the other way round.
There’s also plenty of contrast with the more layered approach of ‘Nothing But The Night’, which could be The Eagles right down to subtle vocal harmonies, the insistent chorus and cute dynamics, all wrapped by a subtle production.
He opens with the lead single ‘Baby Got Gone’ an exemplar of what is to follow, as the album offers him several possible singles with memorable hooks.
Lyrically he’s strongest on the autobiographical ‘Louisiana Rain’, with a core theme of always being called back home. The country influenced and pedal steel driven ‘Hard Earned Lesson’ features principal vocalist Noah Hunt evoking Jackson Brown on a beautifully crafted song that finds the band exploring new musical avenues to good effect.
And it is this collective willingness to innovate and explore that gives this album its contemporary currency. There’s no room for complacency, cliché or recycled riffs as the essential meeting of polished songs and a seasoned road band pushes Kenny to new artistic heights.
Three quarters of the way through the album he slips into guitar mode on an archetypal shuffle ‘Down For Love’ and the riff driven ‘How Low Can You Go’, which brings both ebullient buoyancy and drive.
Both songs serve to remind us of the style that initially gave KWS a gateway to a bigger market. This impressive album offers him yet another portal wholly in keeping with his willingness to keep moving forward musically. ****½
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00
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