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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the Art of Blues

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It’s not hard to get Kenny Wayne Shepherd to talk about cars, especially the Detroit muscle machines of the early 1970s. The Shreveport, La., blues musician, in fact, seems to have as much respect for Chrysler and Plymouth products from the V8 era as he does for some of the blues giants that inspired the searing, rapid-fire guitar riffs that have become his trademark.

“I grew up with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars,” says Shepherd, 31. “As an adult, I’ve had the chance to indulge that interest.”

Shepherd’s passion for high-performance autos led him to join the 2008 Hot Rod Power Tour, a public driving event sponsored by Hot Rod magazine that left the Arkansas State Fairgrounds on June 7, winding its way north and ending at the AlliantEnergyCenter in Madison on June 13. Shepherd says he was planning on driving his newly restored 1972 Plymouth Charger, one of four antique roadsters in his collection. Of course, he could also choose from his 1969 Dodge Charger, 1972 Plymouth Duster or 1950 Ford Coupe.

On June 14, Shepherd once again traded his muscle car for music, playing a date in Aurora, Ill., the start of a summer tour that will keep the musician mostly in the upper Midwest through his June 24 Pabst Theater performance. As much as he loves cars, Shepherd says his passion for the blues is equally as strong.

“A lot of things attract me to the blues,” says Shepherd, who in the past has performed with blues legends B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins. “The characters behind the blues are real personalities. There’s truth in the music.”

Two of Shepherd’s idols, Hubert Sumlin, 76, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, 72, will be joining him onstage at the Pabst, living testimony not only to the power of blues and its makers, but also to its lasting influence on modern music. It’s their inspiration that has kept Shepherd true to the blues and its mission, he explains.

“It’s like Hubert Sumlin says about the blues, “If I can feel it, then I know you can feel it,’” Shepherd says. “That’s what keeps me playing.”

Shepherd, who is largely self-taught, began playing at age 7, copying Muddy Waters riffs from records in his father’s collection. At age 13, he was invited onto a New Orleans stage by Bryan Lee, the blind blues guitarist from Two Rivers, Wis., an experience he says led him to choose music as a career. Lee has since performed with Shepherd multiple times, including Shepherd’s last Pabst date, on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in February 2007 and, most recently, on Shepherd’s new CD, Ten Days Out.

Although he cites jazz, gospel, country and rock ’n’ roll as influences on his style, Shepherd is keenest on the blues, a musical genre he feels is kept alive as much by its fans as by the musicians who perform it.

“The blues has its own personality,” he explains. “It’s not something you’re supposed to think about; you just let your soul carry you through it. When I perform, I try never to play the same song the same way twice.”

Those variations on familiar themes will also characterize his Pabst Theater show, which he says will be varied from other shows on the tour so that the material remains fresh and inventive, both for the audience and the musicians. Sumlin and Smith will alternate sets with Shepherd’s band.

“That’s pretty cool because I get to take a back seat and just play like a sideman,” he says. “I learn a lot during those sets.”

Shepherd will continue his blues studies, he says, because the blues have never been better than they are today.

“The ultimate state of the blues is strong right now, as people look for good, solid, dependable music that they can sink their teeth into,” Shepherd says. “I’m a bluesman at heart, and if you listen to my music you will see that I am trying to push the boundaries of the blues to their limits.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd plays the Pabst on Tuesday, June 24, at 8 p.m.

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