Giant / Reprise Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/15/2000
Ever since his recorded debut a few short years ago, people have been calling Kenny Wayne Shepherd the reincarnation of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stylistically, the two guitarists have much in common - and excuse me for a minute for referring to Vaughan in the present. Both are absolute masters of the Stratocaster - a guitar which some pros say is the toughest to totally control. Both know how to pull the most beautiful notes out of their guitars. Both have crack backing bands to support them.
The main difference between Vaughan and Shepherd is that Vaughan was more of a blues purist, while Shepherd is not afraid to dip his twenty-something hand into the waters of pop rock. Live On, the third release from the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, illustrates this magnificently - although the tried and true formula starts to wear thin near the end.
Before we continue, a quick memo to all record labels: Any time you send out an advance like the one I've been listening to on and off for the last five months, please make sure you tell the writer in the press kit which songs the guest musicians play on. All I can tell the reader is that the guests on this disc include members of Double Trouble (Vaughan's old backing group), James Cotton and Les Claypool... but I have no frickin' idea which tracks they perform on. 'Nuff said.
Shepherd's backing band is one main reason why Live On is such a special disc. Noah Hunt's vocals are as much a distinct part of the sound as Shepherd's guitar work; separate the two, and the magic is greatly diminished. The rhythm section of bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Sam Bryant might not always be the center of attention, but their solid rhythmic backbone helps to lay down a solid foundation for Shepherd to come in and add the guitar highlights.
Tracks like "In 2 Deep," "Was" and the Allman Brothers-tinged "Last Goodbye" (written by the late Jeff Buckley) all quickly show anyone who thought that "Blue On Black" (from Shepherd's last disc Trouble Is...) was a one-hit wonder will be in for an eye-opening surprise. Even the covers - namely, Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" and Buddy Miles's "Them Changes" - are inspired, though "Them Changes" is an admittedly curious choice.
But there are a few times where Shepherd seems to be trying way too hard to follow Vaughan's footsteps. "Shotgun Blues" is one example; at times, it's almost like Shepherd is playing with the ghost of Vaughan, and is trying to trade solos lick for lick against a force we can't hear. Likewise, on "Electric Lullaby," Shepherd doesn't quite seem to know just what to do with the gentle moment of the album, and it feels a little too heavy on the guitar end.
The first half of Live On is the strongest, with the songs hitting like rabbit punches to the midsection. But the second half of the disc almost sags under its own weight. Tracks like "Wild Love" and "Losing Kind" probably would have stood out had they been placed anywhere on the album, but it's almost like they get lost in the shuffle at times. A notable exception to this is the title track, which is given every opportunity to shine. Shepherd's guitar work here is nothing short of magnificent.
There is no doubt that Shepherd is both a talented musician and songwriter, and if anyone has a claim to the throne once occupied by Vaughan, he's got the strongest one. But Shepherd should try and be more free-thinking with some of his music - something he is starting to do with tracks like "Live On" and the cover of "Last Goodbye". After all, it's one thing to emulate arguably the greatest blues guitarist of this generation. It's another to take his legacy and build upon it by branching out.