By Ken Eisner
No one's a boy wonder forever. For Kenny Wayne Shepherd, though, growing up has had its advantages. Now 33, he can hold his own with venerable ax wielders without having to blast anyone off the stage. His seriously deep-fried documentary, 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads, followed the guitar-slinger’s ardent 2007 search through the South for living remnants of old traditions. The same production team returned for the new Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band album, Live! In Chicago, which is his first for Roadrunner Records. A happy, almost accidental product of intensive touring with some players from back in the Days, plus his regulars and more, the 75-minute set finds him playing host to guitar greats such as Hubert Sumlin, early mentor Bryan Lee, and fellow Louisianan Buddy Flett. The fair-haired former youngster pays sincere respect, but his piercing Stratocaster tone has never sounded more commanding.
To what extent is this record an outgrowth of your previous effort?
My last project put me back in touch with my roots. These were the people who inspired me to play in the first place, and they’re part of a very tight-knit community. B.B. King is like an adopted father to me. Buddy Guy, too, and of course Hubert Sumlin. It’s still amazing to me that I have personal relationships with my heroes, and B.B. in particular is quick to give me advice on how to conduct myself, both as a musician and a person.
This began as a tour in support of the documentary, but the songs aren’t even what we worked on for 10 Days Out. By the time the tour got to Chicago, we were pretty comfortable with each other, and with the material we had picked for the shows. We had [Muddy Waters piano stalwart] Pinetop Perkins with us for quite a few dates, just not in Chicago.
The CD wasn’t even planned. At a certain point, I thought, “I better get this down, just for myself, so that 30 years from now I can pull it out and say, ‘Hey, that was me playing with those guys!’” It’s like 50 percent Kenny Wayne Shepherd songs mixed with older blues tunes we hadn’t done before. “Deja Voodoo” introduced me to a lot of people, and “Blue on Black” is still the biggest song of my career, to date, so those had to be there. This set list was in the same sequence as the show, although we did more songs in between some of them.
The easygoing shuffle of Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo hits a different beat for you.
Yes, but my roots go deeper into this stuff than people know, because I haven’t recorded it before. With some of our guests, I knew I had to get some key things in there, like having Hubert do “Rocking Daddy.” That’s a signature riff everybody knows. He also sings “Feed Me,” a swampy thing that he wrote. And having [Muddy drummer] Willie “Big Eyes” Smith sing Jimmy Reed and play this slow, almost behind-the-beat blues—well, I feel it’s just what he would have chosen.
How’d you get such a huge sound out of a live show?
Jerry Harrison and I co-produced this project together, but the guy who really made it sound the way it’s supposed to sound is Eric Thorngren, our engineer. We got to Milwaukee when we decided to start recording, and Jerry said, “I know a guy who has a computer rig that could handle this, but it’s going to be pretty crude. We’ll take a snake directly from the live feed and record all the microphone signals individually direct to a hard drive.”
For Milwaukee, the feed wasn’t set up right, and in Chicago, we got these really raw audio files, but they were good. Fortunately, it was the better of the two shows, and Eric just worked his magic in the mix.
How aware were you that the performance was for posterity?
I really try to forget about that. Anyway, I was so sick that night, with some kind of 24-hour flu or something, and it was the only time in my career that I almost didn’t go on. We cancelled the meet-and-greet and everything else but the show. I just got out there with the fans and the adrenaline took over.
Nothing on the disc was fixed or doctored in any way. It helped that everything sounded great on stage. For my rig that evening, I was using two ’64 Fender Vibroverb reissues, run in stereo. On my board, I had a Vox V848 Clyde McCoy wah, an Analog Man King of Tone overdrive—I’ll hit both the buttons on that and a hand-wired Ibanez TS808 to get a Hendrix thing going on “Voodoo Chile.” I also have the Analog Man Bi-Chorus and AR20DL analog delay pedals, a Chicago Iron Tycobrahe Octavia SE reissue, and a Dunlop Uni-Vibe reissue. That’s the pulsating sound you’re hearing on “Blue on Black,” not tremolo, which I never use.
We just recorded on the fly, and there was no need for fine-tuning. I was changing guitars throughout the evening—various models of my signature Stratocaster, set up for different tunings. And every time I play “Voodoo Chile,” which will be on the premium version of this album, I use my limited edition Monterey Pop Strat that the Fender Custom Shop made for me.
Is that the multicolored one with the reverse headstock?
Yeah, but I had the headstock put on later. It’s so funny, because whenever I play that guitar, guys come up to me after the show and say, “I didn’t know you could play lefthanded, man!”
You started out hot, before the major labels started losing their mojo. How is this new indie environment for you?
I definitely benefited from radio play and label support back when you could still sell a million records. Everybody wants to post good numbers, of course, but I’ve always been more interested in making sure the fans come out to the shows. If we’re filling seats, we’re doing something right. In the long run, I’ve built my career on being a solid live act, and these days, people are really surprised when the band is better in person. Of course, there’s also the beauty of the genre I’m in. Blues fans stay with you through thick and thin. They want you to grow as an artist, and they cheer you on.
Currently, we’re working on a new studio album set to come out in February or March, and my approach is not about how many notes you play, but which notes you play. By now, people know I can burn if I want to burn—but I want to know which note will penetrate the most? Which note or simple group of notes will just grab you by the heartstrings and yank you out of your chair? I guess it has something to do with maturity, or at least experience. When you’re young, you just want to show everybody everything you can do, but now I’m not trying to prove myself to anybody.
In what other ways has your life changed since the early days?
Well, I’m a married man with children now. My wife [clothes designer Hannah Gibson] is such an amazing person, and a great artist in her own right. The single best decision of my life was marrying her and starting a family. I certainly have a different set of priorities now than when I put out my first record, at 17. In 2013, I’ll have been a recording-and-touring artist for 20 years, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had this great a ride so far. The best part is that it’s only beginning!
What about singing? You seem to have dropped that for now.
Well, I sang most of the songs on my fourth album, which turned out to be more of a rock record—another example of my fans sticking with me through all my youthful experiments—with shades of blues here and there. Those songs were super-personal for me. Now I’m happy to let Noah Hunt do most of the singing—he’s been in my band 15 years now—and I like singing harmonies with him. My voice lends itself to that kind of hard-rock sound, I guess. But honestly, my dream is to sing like a 50-year-old black man. Hey, it took Clapton a long time to step up in that department.