By Peter Sloggatt
What’s it take to be called a guitar god?
Well, when blues great Stevie Ray Vaughan recognizes you as a prodigy at age 7… when you’ve shared the stage with New Orleans legend Bryan Lee at 13… when you’ve played alongside the likes of B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Hubert Sumlin, the surviving members of Howlin’ Wolf’s and Muddy Waters’ bands… when Guitar World magazine puts you right behind B.B. King and Eric Clapton on their best blues guitarists lists… That’s when you can be called a guitar god.
One man fits that bill: Kenny Wayne Shepherd. After electrifying a packed house last year at The Paramount with a guitar-driven mix of blues, rock and Hendrix, Shepherd is set to return to the venue tonight, June 19, as part of his “Goin’ Home” tour. And as if Shepherd himself wasn’t enough – pedal steel-guitar wizard Robert Randolph will open the show with his electrifying, energetic blues-gospel-soul sounds.
Shepherd’s appearance is among the first stops of his American tour celebrating his new album, “Goin’ Home,” which celebrates a career milestone and brings him back to the roots of the blues.
“Reflecting on the first 20 years of my career brought me back to where it all began for me,” Shepherd told Long Islander News in a recent interview.
The album features some special guests, including Ringo Starr, Keb Mo’, Joe Walsh, and tour mate Robert Randolph, along with Shepherd’s band – “an all-star lineup of musicians” – digging deep into the roots of the blues sound.
“Goin’ Home” pays tribute to the music that first inspired a very young Shepherd to pick up a guitar, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. In choosing the songs for the album, he said, “We went through a lot of catalogs and looked for a lot of songs that hadn’t been recorded too much, songs with a good vibe that had positive energy.”
The result is a package of “not-so-standards” with a definite blues vibe: “I Love the Life I Live” (featuring Joe Walsh); “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” and “House is Rockin” among them. “Born Under a Bad Sign” is perhaps the most familiar.
“Everything is not the obvious first choice. We shied away from the obvious choices,” Shepherd said.
Still young for a seasoned performer, the 36-year-old musician is self-taught and learned his craft by imitating what he heard on recordings by guitar greats. Shepherd doesn’t even read music.
“Most of my heroes didn’t know how to read music either,” Shepherd said.
For Shepherd’s fans, playing by instinct works just fine. In Kenny Wayne’s hands, guitars weep, bleed and scream. They coax and cajole; they slash and burn. They do whatever he tells them to. His live performances channel Hendrix and often include covers of “Voodoo Child” and other Hendrix hits, honed in during his days touring with “Experience Jimmy Hendrix.”