Right now Kenny Wayne Shepherd is at the height of his powers. He’s a modern day techno-blues man who marries speed with a range of contrasting attacks. He explores feel and tonal variety as part of an avalanche of bluesy shuffles, classic rock, rockabilly, country and finally wah-wah led Hendrix.
His guitar is at the heart of a barnstorming set that perfectly melds song and stage craft with moments of real spark and intensity. He builds up the set layer by layer, to connect with a crowd that is still finding its way into the venue as the band launches into their early 7.30pm slot.
Almost in keeping with the consumer driven venue surroundings, the band takes to the stage with a prior merchandising advert and a similarly pre-recorded intro. They make light of their graveyard slot with a bone shuddering opener, as the Keith Richard style, riff driven ‘Never Lookin’ Back’ serves as template for an evening of high octane intensity.
The band is powered by the magnificent rhythm section of bassist Kevin McCormick and dep drummer Sylvester “Sam” Bryant (a long time KWS tour band member since the mid-90′s).
The latter’s “freight train” nick name is well earned. And when in one of those unscripted moments a member of the crowd shouts out for Chris Layton, Kenny calmly responds that Sam is filling in and it seems to fire the band up.
If Shepherd’s guitar playing and the rich baritone of Noah Hunt is the axis point of the band, then keyboard player Joe Krown provides the perfect foil. He spends the night hovering between piano and Hammond, before belatedly filling the room with some earthy B3 deep into the set.
The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is a well oiled, almost slick machine. There’s barely a pause for breath in a show that sometimes finds Hunt picking up a guitar at the end of a previous number, ready to segue into the next one.
You sometimes get the impression that Shepherd could wake up in the middle of night and fire off these licks at will, but tonight there’s magic in the air. The set builds imperiously on the back of his volley of notes that explore the sharp dividing line between feel and frisson.
Shepherd has also become a much more confident vocalist, as evidenced by the fact he takes the lead on a sizeable chunk of tonight’s 90 minute set, which strikes the perfect balance between the new album and career highlights.
If 8 albums in 24 years isn’t a big return for such a prodigiously talented guitarist, then ‘Lay It On Down’ is a career high that suggests everything has naturally led him to this point.
As with the album, so with the show. The band pushes their blues base into sundry rootsy areas of which the country tinged ballad ‘Hard Lesson Learned’ briefly changes the pace, while the beautifully crafted ‘Diamonds & Gold’ and the hard rocking ‘Baby Got Gone’ are the building blocks for a set that feels like an old fashioned blues revue with a contemporary twist.
Vocalist Noah Hunt prowls the stage with a welcoming smile in contrast to some of his prize fighter style poses and borrowed Paul Rodgers mic techniques. He occasionally ambles over stage left as part of a choreographed move to lean on Shepherd’s shoulder. He points his finger at Kenny as if to suggest to the crowd that they are in the presence of greatness.
Hunt’s phrasing is exemplary. His timbre is rich and powerful and he brings real expression to bear on even the most mundane of blues lyrics and provides the perfect counter balance to Kenny’s higher vocal register.
McCormick joins the duo for some three part harmonies on the booming shuffle ‘Down For Love’, on one of several new songs with a big chorus and Shepherd’s interwoven guitar parts.
The spotlight swings back to Kenny who demonstrates his perfect vibrato either side of Noah’s vocal showcase on the Gary Moore styled ‘Heat Of The Sun’.
And Hunt enjoys his own moment in the spotlight on BB King’s ‘You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now’, though he has to wait patiently for the song’s denouement as Shepherd and keyboard player Krown dive deep into the blues.
There’s a significant flashback to Shepherd’s teen years with the cool intro and explosive guitar break of ‘Deja Voodoo’ and the enveloping shuffle of ‘Born With A Broken Heart’. Both songs set a high standard all those years ago and encouragingly the new material emulates it.
There’s still time for the anthemic ‘Blue On Black’ and a climactic ‘Voodoo Chile’, on which Shepherd seems to be possessed by some outer worldly force on the perfect finish to one of the gigs of the year.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Rockrpix
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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