Playing the blues is about much more than grabbing a guitar and belting out a tune. It takes heart and soul.
At least, that’s how Kenny Wayne Shepherd sees it.
On Tuesday, the blues-rock artist will return to the Capital Region to perform at the Palace Theatre with legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy.
"You're witnessing two different generations of this genre that are continuing to move it forward,” Shepherd said.
He’s known Guy since he was 14.
“I spent the day with him back then. He was playing a show in Dallas, Texas, and my dad -- because of his radio station, he was tight with a lot of the record company guys -- so we went to Dallas to go see Buddy play, but we got to spend the whole day with him, running around town while Buddy was doing press and stuff,” Shepherd said.
That would’ve been just two years before Shepherd signed his first record deal with a major label. Shepherd was a fan of the blues from a young age, and as soon as he picked up a guitar he gravitated toward the genre.
“Part of it, I think, was my first concert that [my dad] took me to was to see Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. That was my first introduction to live music, a blues show with two of the greatest. And then I think it's the feeling that's put into the music, the passion,” Shepherd said, “One of the biggest requirements of playing blues, to do it legitimately, is to play it with your heart and soul. I think that's something everybody can feel, everybody can identify with, regardless of age. Even if the lyrics weren't resonating with me, the playing of the instruments was.”
Since his first album, “Ledbetter Heights,” Shepherd has gone on to record well over a dozen albums, garnering a few Grammy nominations and winning a Billboard Music Award for Top Rock Song along the way.
With each new album or project, Shepherd is always trying to push his music further, to resist being stagnant in any way he can. His latest album “The Traveler” was no different.
“For me, it was about trying to raise the bar each time, not trying to repeat myself but continue moving my music forward. That process for 'The Traveler' started with the previous album, ‘Lay It on Down,’ when I started to collaborate with people that I had never written with before just to push myself outside of [my] comfort zone,” Shepherd said.
“The collaborations that I had in place had been working for many, many years, and it's so easy to just keep doing what works, but I [felt] like I wanted to challenge myself and do things that were not always that easy and slightly uncomfortable, just to see what would come from it. So I started doing that on the 'Lay it on Down' record, and then that spilled over into 'The Traveler' album as well, so some of those collaborations from the 'Lay it on Down' album helped create the materials for this record too,” Shepherd said.
“The Traveler,” which was released this year, starts off with the foot-stomping, hand-clapping tune “A Woman Like You” with vocals by Noah Hunt, a longtime member of Shepherd’s band.
“I Want You” follows a little later, with horns and a bit of swagger. “Long Time Running” showcases Shepherd’s guitar playing and this album, more than some of his past records, has showcased Shepherd’s vocals as well.
Singing more was another way to keep the music fresh and challenge himself. But Shepherd said he has Stephen Stills to thank for that challenge. Shepherd, Stills and Barry Goldberg formed a band called The Rides several years ago, and Stills was adamant that Shepherd sing just as much as him.
“I sing half of those records, and then every night onstage I was obviously forced to sing half the show. So that's really what forced me into getting more comfortable with it. In my own band, it was just so easy to fall back into letting Noah sing everything because he's such a great singer and I love playing guitar, so it's just really easy to let him sing the songs and I get to play guitar and everybody's happy. But again, it was just realizing that the only way to grow is to challenge myself and to do things that my initial reaction may be to not want to do them. As a result, Stephen really pushed me to sing more, and it's had an effect on my own personal band as well,” Shepherd said.
While the inspiration for his songs comes from a variety of places, one thing Shepherd said he’s not interested in singing about is politics.
“We look to life for inspiration because I think we can all relate to that. We're all just trying to get through life one day at a time. But I try to be more positive in my messages. Sometimes songs can be completely made up and other times they can be really based on a personal experience. . . . Some are more just a broad statement. But the one thing I do completely shy away from is politics. I don't get into politics with my music. I think people want to hear me play music, they don't want to hear me talk politics. That stuff's too divisive anyway. Music's supposed to bring people together,” Shepherd said.
With the upcoming show at the Palace, the band will perform roughly half the songs from the new album, with a few old favorites mixed in.
“You have to walk a fine line: We want to feature the new stuff because we want to turn people onto the new albums, but then when you've been making records as long as we have -- and we've had a lot of success in radio and a lot of singles that did really well on the radio -- people come to hear those songs as well, so it's a balancing act,” Shepherd said.
Guy will be performing songs from his record “The Blues is Alive and Well,” which came out last year. The two have been touring since June, and Shepherd said it’s been a great opportunity.
“I've been doing shows with him for many, many years. He's a living legend. He's one of the last true [artists] of Chicago blues with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He's one of the last real direct links to that era that we have still out there alive and doing it, so it's a huge honor and a pleasure,” Shepherd said.
Buddy Guy and Kenny Wayne Shepherd
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Palace Theatre
MORE INFO: palacealbany.org