When I first heard that Kenny Wayne Shepherd was going to be opening for Van Halen on their much-publicized 2015 North American Tour, I was delighted and I’ll admit a little surprised at the same time, mainly because he’s most known inside the blues world, although he did get a fair amount of mainstream play when “Blue on Black” took over the FM airwaves in 1998. I have a theory as to why he was placed on this bill though. Not too many guitar players that don’t sing(although KWS does sing, he’s just known more for his guitar skills) get their bands named after them, at least not too many big bands. It’s an honor that I think is reserved for select few players that can summon the gods of the six-string when they play and like Eddie Van Halen, Kenny Wayne Shepherd can do just that. Of course that’s just a theory, maybe the powers that be are just fans of great music.
Kenny Wayne has grown up and although he has always been a fantastic guitar player, he’s clearly moving on to another level. No list of top living guitarists would be complete without his name. During his blistering set while opening for Van Halen (read that review HERE) on this sweltering early July day, he absolutely tortured the neck of his road-worn Sunburst Strat. There is a certain beauty in a guitar that has seen the amount of miles and fans that his has and the tones he gets from that hammered-on machine can only come from one of those.
Midway through the set, the band lovingly paid tribute to the king of the blues, the late B.B. King, who passed away back in May of this year. With Kenny in perfect sync with his long-time lead singer Noah Hunt, and his rhythm section which includes rock royalty in Chris Layton of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble behind the drum kit, they played the hell out of the blues.
When Hunt asked if there were any blues fans in the house he got a rise out of the crowd, which is always good to see. Hunt himself is a bit of a blues disciple; he’s stated in interviews his love for all the blues greats, including Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose sound was also a clear influence on Wayne’s guitar sound. In fact, Shepherd met Stevie Ray Vaughn at a young age and it had a profound effect on him. Together the guys that make up the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band can play the blues with anyone and not just blues rock, they can get absolutely filthy into some pure blues, as they displayed on stage at White River Amphitheater.
Of course the band was not going to get off stage without playing their biggest radio hit to date, the aforementioned “Blue on Black”, which shot up the charts and camped out at #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock chart for 6 weeks. Another thing that song did and the album it was from, ‘Trouble Is…’, did was breathe more new life into the blues when in 1999 it was selected as the blues album of the year on the Billboard blues charts. This night in Auburn, they played it well, just as they have probably thousands of times by now.
Final song of Shepherd’s set was “Voodoo Child” and he did it justice big time. He gets a ferocious tone out of his gear setup and he has some experience with Hendrix’s material. In fact he was on the Experience Hendrix tour last year that included Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Jonny Lang and Serbian shredder Ana Popovic, just to name a few. That’s pretty decent company right there for sure.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd played behind his back, from his knees and literally shredded like a man on mission to win over the fans of Van Halen, and if they weren’t fans of him before the show, they sure as hell were afterwards.