Gig review: KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

This was the first time I had been exposed to support act Ben Poole‘s material to any serious degree and I came away exceedingly impressed. Very much in the boxcar of Britain’s youthful blues train, Poole has a healthy respect for the genre and its purveyors; and he has a quiet and understated stage presence too. Until he unleashes his solos, when suddenly there is no modesty at all.

Poole and his startlingly accomplished playing is the main focus, but this is a whole band experience, even down to the black t-shirt uniform. Paul Weller-coiffed Stevie Watts grabs a share of the limelight trading his delicious Hammond organ licks with Poole’s biting guitar during the opening ‘Let’s Go Upstairs’ from the 2012 album of the same name. The remainder of the four-piece comprises Matt Beable on bass and Craig Bacon on drums.

The 45-minute set found room for only a handful of tracks. The majority were put together in complex, twisting and sometimes unexpected arrangements of blues, soul and power ballad; and one short funk-inspired composition, ‘Starting All Over’ as a set closer. Rather than this spiky and rather ill-at-ease mash up, it is the earlier set-piece workouts that set the loftier standard.

In tone, Poole is a master of pace, drama and control, his guitar often sounding as much like Dave Gilmour as, say, Walter Trout. In appearance, he delivers a very physical performance, wringing out every note of his epic guitar passages as if his life depended upon it. The best moments come in ‘Time Might Never Come’, a track of Poole’s own composition dedicated to, and very much in the mould of Gary Moore.

At one point, his forearm tendons stand out and tattooed biceps flex with effort as he finds a bottom end sequence to shake one’s very bowels.  The next moment he disappears from view, bent double to extract yet more pure emotion from his long suffering Les Paul.

Poole is a serious talent, leaving nothing behind in this show and building the anticipation for his eagerly awaited next project.

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

The blues is a broad church. The contrast with headliner Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band could not have been more stark. If Poole is authentically British, this lot are pure Stateside showbiz. Bouncing out under a brash light show, Shepperd blitzes the first 15 minutes with pumping tracks that give a hard rocking edge to his brand of blues power.

‘Never Lookin’ Back’ has an infectious, driving bassline underpinning some of KWS’ trademark mercurial licks. Dylan’s ‘Everything Is Broken’ is given a serious upshift, followed quickly by a raucous ‘This House Is Rockin’, a Stevie Ray Vaughan cover smashed out as a three-chord boogie brimming with cocky swagger.

Shepherd has all the moves, and delivers them expertly. He throws his bleached, mop-topped head back at the climax of his solos and pouts so much he has surely practised the moves in front of the mirror. Tremendously entertaining.

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

He has a great foil in Noah Hunt with whom Shepherd shares vocal duties. The two have worked together for 15 years. Noah scampers from one side of the stage to the other cajoling the crowd into handclaps and whoops, whilst Kenny Wayne at his elbow flicks out another one-handed shuffle.

A brace of excellent, up tempo tracks follow from ‘Trouble Is…’, ‘Kings Highway’ and ‘True Lies’, dispatched with elan and precision by this quality band. The rhythm and keyboard unit are much less flashy than the two boys up front and centre. Drummer, Chris Layton beats out the time with minimum of fuss and animation. He was due to fly home after the gig to be inducted into the Musicians Hall Of Fame for his time with Double Trouble, backing Stevie Ray Vaughan. Riley Osbourne on the keys and Scott Nelson on complete this heavyweight five-piece.

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

The show begins to draw breath when the band stretches into a poignant and gorgeous ‘Heat of the Sun’, where KWS for the first time tonight shows that he has melody and note-bending feel as well as dexterity and power.

The set list draws on all areas of Shepherd’s back catalogue and there are as many covers as original compositions. Partly this provides a wonderful platform to showcase the many styles in which KWS is adept. Yet the way he re-invents the tracks makes them feel like they are his own compositions.

Nothing tonight illustrates this more than his electric rendition of Elmore James’  ’Talk To Me Baby’, staying true to the track’s unique rhythm groove, over which Shepperd lays down some incendiary splinters of lead fretwork. There’s also a big production of Jonny Guitar Watson’s ‘Lookin’ Back’ that makes the Dr Feelgood version look spare and gaunt.

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 15 April 2015

Perhaps the highlight of the show is the back-to-back BB King epics, ‘Woke Up This Morning (My Baby’s Gone’) and ‘You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now’ from the band’s latest cut ‘Going Back’.

Again the guitar maestro shows his virtuosity and technical range with some emotional, spiralling solos. Osbourne sweeps through a wonderful keyboard interlude on the latter that has most of the crowd nodding a well-knowing appreciation. Hunt may not possess the most blues-soaked tonsils in the business, but these songs show him off to best effect with some fine phrasing and genuine feeling.

The encores merely take everything back up a notch. Power ballad ‘Blue On Black’ is close to a signature track for the band and it hits one emotional high spot after another. The nod to British Blues in Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ again underlines the extraordinary range of this fearless six-string slinger.

And just in case anyone thought the octane levels were dropping, the band close out with a pulsating ten-minute ‘Voodoo Chile’ powered by pure unleaded afterburn. If there is a more high-tempo blues show in town, don’t call me. I’m not sure the ticker could take it.

A wonderful night of emerging talent and established talent; of melody, subtly, power, passion… and all points in between. The future is safe.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Darran Scott

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