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Kenny Wayne Shepherd finds dark heart of the blues at Gratwick Park

It sometimes seems that love for the electric blues above all forms of music is a test one must pass to enter some sort of cult. People who truly love this music often seem to subscribe to the “blues or nothing” mentality. I’ve never been a fan of reductive views of the rich pageant offered by all music, and since the blues is at the heart of almost every form with the exception of classical music, well, of course we love it. Without it, we wouldn’t have much.

I find the whole “blues cult” thing annoying, but it has never stopped me from loving the blues. It’s a music that hits you in the gut and the heart at once, and demands that you relate to it on a wholly emotional level.

Though I’ve seen him many times in the past, it was during Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s performance at Gratwick Park on Friday – as part of the Rockin’ on the River series in North Tonawanda – that I fully understood the way he and his band have managed to fully embody the blues.

Their 90-minute set before several thousand people was inspired, and bridged the gap between traditional southern blues, the psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix and the Chicago derivations of the late ’50s and ’60s.

Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before: this guy Shepherd can play the guitar like he traded his soul to the red guy with the horns for the privilege of doing so.

He has assembled a band with a considerable pedigree to aid him in his quest to find the dark heart of the blues and parlay its emotional resonance to an audience. A longtime member of his cohort, Noah Hart – a soulful blues singer with more than a bit of Paul Rodgers in him – was joined by Chris Layton, the drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, and Tony Franklin, former fretless bassist with The Firm, featuring Jimmy Page and Rodgers.

The group brought a dense, dynamic and deeply resonant ensemble sound to bear on Shepherd’s material, whether he was playing songs he’d written himself or covering and interpreting some of the greatest of the blues greats.

Kicking off with the rapid-fire blues-rock assault of “Never Lookin’ Back,” “King’s Highway” and “True Lies,” the band hit its first peak with the back-to-back slam that was a take on Vaughan’s “The House Is Rocking” – with lead vocals from Shepherd – and the original “Heart of the Sun,” a slow-building ballad that led into a lengthy jam section, with Layton and Franklin sounding not unlike Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce backing Eric Clapton in Cream.

Interpretations of evergreen pieces by Elmore James (“Talk To Me Baby”) and a pair of B.B. King classics led to some incendiary guitar solos and astute band interplay.

An encore take on Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” closed a show on the highest of notes.