‘Straight To You Live’ – Kenny Wayne Shepherd at Battle, Axe & Tracks

Tahoe Onstage
Kenny Wayne Shepherd headlines Battle, Axe & Tracks on Sunday, Oct. 2.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s recently released DVD, “Straight To You Live,” is the first concert DVD he’s released in a career that now stretches back more than 25 years. But it’s not like he’s been trying to avoid doing such a project all of this time.

“The fans have been asking for a live DVD for decades,” Shepherd acknowledged in a recent phone interview. “We record audio every night, but we’ve done a number of shows with video as well. And for one reason or another, we just never felt like we had the right night.”

It’s possible this concert, which was filmed in Germany for broadcast on the legendary concert series “Rockpalast,” might have stayed on the shelf, too, if it hadn’t been followed just a few months later by the COVID pandemic.

“It was a real honor to be asked to do it,” Shepherd said of “Rockpalast.” “And so we did the show, and that night we all watched it after the show was done. We watched it back and we were like ‘Wow, it’s actually a really great performance.’ And then we really didn’t think much more about it – until COVID happened. Then we started realizing that people are not going to be able to come and see us for awhile, and they’ve been asking for a live concert for years, and we have this. The audio is great, the performance is great, the camera work is great. Maybe we should put this together and get it out to them so they can watch it in the comfort of their own homes until we can get back out on the road.”

It turned out the “Rockpalast” appearance came at a good time for the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, near the end of a European tour when the musicians — guitarist/singer Shepherd, singer Noah Hunt, drummer Chris Layton (formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble), bassist Kevin McCormick, keyboardist Joe Krown, saxophonist Joe Sublett and trumpet player Mark Pender — were in top form.

“On that tour, we were on fire. I mean, almost all the entire European tour was sold out, so we were on a really good run,” Shepherd said. “The band was just firing on all cylinders. The timing was great, and we had no idea actually how good the timing was going to be and that we would have that (concert) available to put out for the fans during this pandemic.”

The Rockpalast concert came near the end of a busy and productive period for Shepherd and his band. The group released a new studio album, “The Traveler,” in May 2019 and was well into the touring cycle for that release when the “Rockpalast” performance happened.

Shepherd and the band then went into the studio to record a new album, which was finished just before the pandemic hit and the world shut down. Originally set for release in 2021, the new studio album is now tentatively planned for release in the coming months, which opened up the window to release “Straight To You Live” in late 2020.

When the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band plays Oct. 2 at Battle, Axe & Tracks in Reno, fans can expect a set list similar to the 13-song set on the “Straight To You Live” DVD, with perhaps a few more songs, including material from “The Traveler.”

Shepherd said he’ll hold off performing songs from the next studio album until around the time that album is released.

But one more recent song may well be included in Shepherd’s shows. It’s “Hit ‘Em Back,” a collaboration between Shepherd and blues singer/songwriter Shemekia Copeland that also features guest appearances from lap steel guitar player Robert Randolph and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman.

Copeland (daughter of the late blues artist Johnny Copeland), reached out to Shepherd to write music to the lyrics she and co-writer John Hahn had completed. The lyrics have a strong and multi-dimensional message calling for unity, respect and cooperation, while also pointing up the divisiveness that exists in today’s society overall and the blues community in particular. Shepherd wrote muscular and soulful blues-rock music to accompany the lyrics, which was what he felt the song demanded.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd at Lake Tahoe in 2016.

“I just thought it should sound large,” he said. “We have a message we’re conveying in this song, and it’s multi-faceted. Like there are a number of ways to interpret the song. There are a number of ways to apply the lyrics. There are a number of things that are addressed in the song. We’re making a statement, and to transmit a message, you want to transmit it as loud as possible. So I thought the song needed musically to be big and powerful because I feel the message is powerful. It addresses a lot of the complicated things that are happening in our (blues) world today and in the world today, but it’s also expressing a message of love and unity. It’s time to bring people together, which is what we were doing by doing the song and the way that we did it by collaborating together.”

Shepherd, 45, has grown into one of the leading artists in blues (or blues-rock or whatever description one wants to attach to his music). He exploded onto the scene at age 17 with his impressive 1995 million-selling debut album, “Ledbetter Heights,” followed two years later by “Trouble Is…” As the years have gone on, Shepherd has continued to release albums at a steady clip that have seen his skills as a songwriter and guitarist only grow stronger. He’s also shown his genuine talent, knowledge and appreciation for the blues, not only with his music, but specifically with the 2007 CD/DVD 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads.” The project found Shepherd traveling around to meet and collaborate with a host of blues veterans, including B.B. King, Henry Townsend, Cootie Stark and Hubert Sumlin. The film documented the trip and the album included songs Shepherd recorded with these blues masters.

Despite a quarter-century-plus history with the blues, Shepherd said he had not encountered the kind of anger and divisiveness within the blues community that are referenced in “Hit ‘Em Back.”

“Frankly, I thought of the community having always been very inclusive just up until recently,” he said. “And a lot of things have been revealed to me that I just was unaware of, but have obviously been going on in the blues community for a while. I had no idea. So we thought it was time to address that because a lot of people are trying to use situations to divide people, and united we stand, divided we fall, right?

“We’re all here in the same music community and we do ourselves much more of a service if we get along and appreciate one another than trying to draw lines in the sand,” Shepherd said.

Alan Sculley, Last Word Features

-Related story: A study in guitar styles at Battle, Axe & Tracks.

ABOUT Alan Sculley

Alan Sculley
Alan Sculley has operated his music feature service, Last Word Features, for more than 25 years. His music features and reviews have appeared in more than 100 daily newspapers, alternative weeklies and entertainment publications.

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