Credit: Wayne Crans: Dead Bird Photography
If the blues is all about the crossroads, Jonny Lang is standing in the right place. A decade into the new century, Lang is the ideal representative of a new and innovative generation of blues artists – one who respects and reveres the traditions of the past hundred-plus years, yet isn’t afraid to embrace more complex and evolved genres and graft them to the blues foundation to create a hybrid sound that is both traditional and fresh at the same time.
Indeed, on any given night, sweat-drenched crowds at a Jonny Lang performance are likely to hear shades of R&B, soul, gospel, hard rock, funk and more. All of it is packaged in a high-octane guitar-and-vocal attack from an artist who has covered countless miles since his teenage years, and continues to explore new horizons with unbridled enthusiasm.
Concord Records captures that energy and enthusiasm with the April 20, 2010, release of Live at the Ryman, a recording that provides a snapshot of Lang in his natural element – onstage in front of an electrified audience, celebrating the past and heralding the future of the blues. Recorded in August 2008 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, Live at the Ryman is his first album since 2006’s Turn Around, which earned him a Grammy® Award for Best Gospel Album. Lang’s first-ever live album showcases twelve tracks from Lang’s previous studio albums and pumps them up to an unprecedented level of intensity.
“We’ve played the Ryman several times,” says Lang, “and every time we do it, it’s just a very special experience. It’s one of those magical places where you can’t help but be inspired. I think a lot of that magic and inspiration makes its way onto this recording. It’s a collection of some of the best songs from our studio recordings – only more energized, thanks to a great group of musicians and a very receptive live audience.”
Backing Lang on the Ryman set is the capable team of guitarist/vocalist Sonny Thompson, keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, bassist Jim Anton, drummer Barry Alexander and percussionist/vocalist Jason Eskridge. “There are quite a few spontaneous, improvised moments on this album,” says Lang. “Having incredible musicians with you – people who know when to play and when to hold back, and know how to be professionals in every sense of the word – that’s a big part of what makes this album work.”
The guitarist out in front of this team is just as incredible, and his trajectory over the past two decades has been fascinating to watch. He was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and to the best of his knowledge, his was the only farm family in rural North Dakota whose parents would have Motown records playing in the house on any given day.
But Lang got a taste of something a little more fundamental and powerful at age 12, when his father took him to see the Bad Medicine Blues Band, a mainstay of the Fargo club scene. Suddenly, it was all about the blues – and even more importantly, all about the guitar. Within weeks, Lang was taking lessons from Bad Medicine guitarist Ted Larsen. By the time he was 13, he had developed sufficient chops to land a spot in the band.
The group moved to Minneapolis, renamed itself Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang, and recorded the independently-released Smokin’in 1995. Lie To Me, the 1997 followup album propelled by a hit title track, introduced the 16-year-old Lang to a nationwide audience. The young guitarist’s affinity for funk, soul and gospel was already apparent on Lie To Me, as well as the Grammy-nominated Wander This World, released in 1998.
During a five-year recording hiatus, Lang stayed busy on the stage. By the end of his teen years, he had already supported world tours for Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. Other stage credits include tours and/or performances with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Bono and Sting.
The studio dry spell ended with Long Time Comin’ in 2003. An amalgam of blues, rock and soul, the album reflected Lang’s growing talents as a songwriter and producer.
It all came together three years later with the gospel-influenced Turn Around, the 2006 release that scored a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album. “That was an amazing moment in my career,” says Lang. “The idea of winning a Grammy had never been one of those things that really lit a fire under me. But then after it happened, I got an understanding of what it really means to go up against some amazing world-class musicians and win.”
But Lang himself has achieved world-class status, as is evidenced by the combination of musicianship and songcraft captured on Live at the Ryman. The set opens with the triple punch of “One Person At a Time,” “Bump in the Road” and “Turn Around” – songs that reflect Lang’s ever evolving spiritual side and convey a sense of hope for greater harmony within the human experience.
“No matter what kind of person you are, or what your background is, or what your situation is, hopefully one of these songs is going to connect to you,” he says. “In my own life, music has been such a powerful force, and I know that’s the case for a lot of people. I’ve seen how music can give people the strength to change. After years of witnessing that, it’s become more of a focus for me to write songs that really count.”
Later, Lang and company work their way through the bitter and churning “A Quitter Never Wins,” a song by veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis that’s been a consistent entry in Lang’s live show for many years. “I’ve known Tinsley since I was first getting started in music,” Lang recalls. “He was a big influence on me since the very beginning, and I’ve always loved his music.”
Soulful and introspective, “Red Light” is one of Lang’s personal favorites, a sweet spot that he and the rest of the band settle into every time they play it. “It’s a part of the set where the dynamic changes from a kind of high-energy atmosphere to a more intimate moment in the set,” he says. “It takes me into a zone where I feel very much at home. I’m very comfortable with it, and we have a lot of great moments within the song from night to night.”
In the home stretch, the melancholy ballad “Breakin’ Me” veers away from the straight-ahead, hard rocking blues and showcases Lang’s ability to slip into a softer, more emotionally nuanced dimension. He shifts gears for the closer, a burning rendition of “Lie To Me” – the song that first put him on the map as a youngster, and one that continues to define him as a force to be reckoned with in the new generation of 21st century blues.
Live at the Ryman may be an accurate portrait of the artist as a young man, but Lang considers himself to be very much a work in progress – on all fronts, musical and otherwise. “I’m a blues musician, but I’m also much more than that,” he says. “I’m still growing as an artist and as a person, and I’m always contemplating different ideas as my world view changes. There’s still a lot more to do, and I want to accomplish as much as possible while I can.”
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