Louisana-born Kenny Wayne Shepherd debuted with his
outstandingly successful blues album Ledbetter Heights in 1995 and continues to show
his class almost a quarter of a century later with the release of The Traveler on 31 May 2019 (Provogue/ Mascot Label Group/ Concord Records).
Over those years Shepherd has grown in stature as a songwriter; become more thoughtful in his use of guitar, particularly his favoured 61 Strat - which he describes as “an extension of his own body”; – and added more diversity, such as keyboards, to his sound. As one critic said: “Shepherd has guitar chops to burn but this record never tries to be a shred showcase. The group sound is clearly the focus and it makes all the difference.” And Shepherd confirms this view: “As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to lean towards the approach of less is more. I play for the song now”.
In 2017 Shepherd and his band released Lay It On Down, which was voted Blues Rock Review’s top album of the year, and it wouldn’t surprise if he repeated that feat with this record. Comprising 10 tightly produced songs, it is certainly going to add serious numbers to the millions he has already sold.
“Making this album was an interesting process,” Shepherd says. “I was home for a few months and I wanted to spend some time with my family and not do any work for a while. But then we had a run of ten shows on the West Coast, so I figured, while I’ve got everybody out there, let’s be productive and make another record”.
That spontaneous decision has paid off as his talented and experienced touring band, comprising singer Noah Hunt, bassist Kevin McCormick, drummer Chris ‘Whipper’ Layton and keyboardists’ Joe Krown and Jimmy McGorman, backed by the co-production of Shepherd and Marshall Altman, has produced more magic for his fans.
The album kicks off with the feel-good rock anthem Woman Like You, which contains a lovely guitar solo and horns. The upbeat rock feel continues with Long Time Running, which has an interesting tempo change, and a lyric about “someone expressing what it’s like to lead a complicated existence,” says Shepherd. Not that any of us, of course, can identify with that…
The sultry, powerful and swaggering I Want You follows, which has the feel of a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. This is followed by the more mellow acoustically-driven number Tailwind, of which Shepherd explains: “We’re all travelling together through this thing called life. These are testing times for us as a society, and it seems to me that it’s been a bit crazy in the world lately, with so much division. Without making any kind of political point, it’s like, ‘Let’s get through this together, appreciate one another and not always be trying to fight’”.
Gravity takes us in a different sonic direction and features some lovely harmonies and sentimental lyrics, and is one of the highlights of the album. Unusually, Shepherd shares vocals with Hunt on Gravity and the next song, We All Alright - for which the guitarist credits Stephen Stills (his colleague in The Rides), for extending him in that direction. Shepherd certainly has his work cut out for him against Hunt’s powerful voice, but the ‘experiment’ works.
Two great covers follow: Buffalo Springfield’s Mr. Soul and Joe Walsh’s Turn To Stone, featuring Shepherd being expansive on guitar. Turn To Stone closes the album and meets their stated aim of catching the essence of their live shows; “I want [listeners] to hear what we sound like when we play live”, explains Shepherd.
If you choose to step aboard The Traveler, you’ll be listening to a class act honed after nearly 25 years of performances live and in the studio. It is hard to imagine you being disappointed.