I wasn’t following blues music when Kenny Wayne Shepherd first appeared on the scene. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. And on my limited acquaintance with him in recent years he’s never really bowled me over. So what to make, then, of his latest album The Traveler?
Well, on the strength of the opening three tracks I was pretty encouraged. ‘Woman Like You’ may not be the most of original of songs, but it has a stomping drumbeat, a gutsy riff, and Shepherd contributes the kind of fiery guitar solo that might justify his reputation. ‘Long Time Running’ follows that up even more strongly. It’s even more powerful than its precursor, with revving rhythm guitar, and horns flaring to provide extra raunch. Shepherdchucks in an array of urgent guitar licks, and his solos sound not just like he’s got a tiger in his tank, but that he’s having fun into the bargain. ‘I Want You’ consolidates this promising opening with a suitably hip-grinding riff and a bluesy feel, buttressed by more horns and flashes of organ. With a couple of solos from Shepherd that are varied in pace and show good use of tension and release, and a bright organ solo as a bonus, things are looking good.
|Kenny Wayne Shepherd - we all alright|
However. Much as I’m impressed by what I’m hearing up to this point, I’m not keen on Noah Hunt’s voice. Shepherd has been working with Hunt since 1996, so clearly believes in him. But for me, Hunt suffers from an unusual problem – his vocals are too good. I know, this sounds crazy. But his singing is too neat, too clean, too faultless, too lacking in personality to make a real impression. Rather than putting any kind of stamp on the material, his voice just slides off me, so that as much as I find ‘Woman Like You’ entertaining, I’m left to note that his voice sounds like just another middle-of-the-road country rocker.
Interestingly, Shepherd has said that for this album he took on lead vocal duties more often – but the album credits don’t specify on which tracks. I’d hazard a guess at three of them though, one of them being the aforementioned ‘I Want You’, and if his efforts aren’t as technically flawless as Hunt’s, they have the advantage of displaying a bit more character.
But then I have another problem. After this bright start, the album collapses like a soufflé in the face of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’, which are awful modern-day country rock efforts. I don’t have a problem with country music per se, far from it. But ‘Tailwind’ is soggy, run of the mill country that’s not remotely original. Striving to be deep and meaningful, it deploys acoustic strumming and harmonies to no effect. ‘Gravity’ is slightly better, but not much. With a pedestrian “Oh-woah-oh” vocal line and clichéd lyrics, its saving grace is another decent solo. The same is true of ‘Take It On Home’, later on, a slice of common or garden country rock, or southern rock without the wit perhaps, despite swelling organ and another decent solo.
‘Better With Time’ may be in a similar vein, but it’s better put together, with (I think) Shepherd on vocals, a soulful horn riff, and a neat coda. Stronger still is ‘We All Alright’, with its stabbing, spiky riff, and big fuzzy chords over a rolling drum beat, a busy guitar solo and an appealing little piano outro – which at least manages to create some fresh momentum after the feebleness of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’.
Two covers are included – Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’, and Joe Walsh’s ‘Turn To Stone’. It makes for an instructive comparison, as both of them are thoroughbred songs, with guts and originality. On the former horns chug out the emphatic riff, urged on by surging organ, it sounds like it’s Shepherd who brings conviction to the vocal, and there’s an accelerating ending with racing guitar to round things off nicely. The Walsh hit is given a muscular reading, with its tough but controlled riff and good hook, but the vocals don’t have the striking, individual quality that Walsh brought to the party. Still, there’s a nice, piano-led bridge, with KWS tickling his guitar in the margins, before getting into a big solo that has real vitality and even drama.
All in all The Traveler is a decent album that certainly shows off Shepherd’s guitar chops. It’s even good enough to encourage me to play fair by Shepherd, and go in search some of Shepherd’s older stuff to try and understand how he’s got to where he is now.