People often speak of the blues as if it were Latin, a dead language that now primarily serves as the root of more modern forms. But like all musical styles, it has evolved. Keith Urban doesn’t sound much like Hank Williams, but they still call it country, and Foo Fighters will never be mistaken for Little Richard, but it’s still rock and roll. Likewise, the fact that few modern practitioners directly echo Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters doesn’t mean that the blues is only for archivists and aficionados. The blues lives on in other guises. Bob Dylan’s work from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” through 2012’s “Tempest” saw him rollin’ and tumblin’ through blues forms from the Mississippi Delta to the south side of Chicago, and Jack White’s music from The White Stripes through his solo work is to Howlin’ Wolf as Metallica is to Buddy Holly – a natural, earth-shaking extension of the form.
While plenty of artists remain dedicated to taking blues into new territory, others have committed themselves to preserving a sound that has one foot rooted firmly in the past. Here are four modern masters of traditional blues who will visit Kansas City this week.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’
Born in 1942, Taj Mahal is a bridge between blues generations. Raised on the golden-age blues of the post-war years, Taj arrived in the record-buying consciousness in 1967 as an artist equally at home playing Cream-style heavy electric blues and an acoustic country style that hearkened back to the front porch music of decades past. But while his peers largely deployed the blues in a turn toward hard rock, Taj navigated a new way by incorporating Latin, Caribbean and African sounds into his music, often flavored by his subtle and exquisite slide guitar. Before “world music” was a concept, Taj Mahal was claiming the music of the globe as his own by ignoring borders. He has also had a long, on-and-off association with the Rolling Stones, joining them on stage from time to time and appearing in the 1968 film “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.”
Among those influenced by Taj Mahal in the early 1970s was an aspiring singer, songwriter and musician named Kevin Moore who followed a meandering path to a life in the blues. The California native started in a calypso band playing bass and steel drums, served as a collaborator with Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach, tried his hand at acting, worked as a staff songwriter for A&M Records, and even recorded a solo album for a subsidiary of the doomed Casablanca Records in 1980. After another decade-plus in relatively anonymity, Moore truncated his name to Keb’ Mo’ and became a fixture on the scene for roots-music fans who gravitated toward old-school country blues. After a dozen solo albums – three of which have won the Grammy for best contemporary blues album – Keb’ Mo’ has gradually expanded his sound but has remained true to the laid-back sound that originally animated his career.
Earlier this year, the like-minded spirits Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ came together to release “TajMo,” a charming, slinky, soul-inflected duet album. They come to Kansas City’s Uptown Theater on Thursday, Sept. 14 to play those songs and more from deep catalogs and lives lived in the blues.
Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Casual observers of the blues can be forgiven for confusing Kenny Wayne Shepherd with Jonny Lang. After all, they both rose to prominence in the middle 1990s as blues guitar prodigies who scored platinum albums while still in their teens. They’ve both been prolific in the intervening decades, releasing a series of recordings that go beyond mimicry of the Albert King/Eric Clapton/Stevie Ray Vaughan school of electric blues by concocting blends of blues, rock, pop and gospel. They’re both married with five children. They’ve both been featured in the Experience Hendrix concerts that celebrate the life and work of Jimi Hendrix, and in 2015 they criss-crossed the country on a co-headlining tour.
Now Kansas City blues-rock fans are being put to a difficult choice, because Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang each come to town on Monday, September 18 for separate shows at different venues.
Jonny Lang, who plays at Knuckleheads, was just 15 years old in 1997 when he released “Lie to Me,” a mostly traditional blast of electric blues that showcased the kid’s considerable chops on guitar and became the first of five straight studio albums to crack the top 50 on the Billboard charts. The problem with becoming so famous so young is the inevitable period of growing up in public. And while Lang managed to lead a scandal-free life, his path to becoming a mature recording artist was documented on major-label releases while others his age were free to develop in private. You can witness Lang feeling around for his style on some of those recordings, and you can see his spiritual conversion to Christianity on several, most notably on 2003’s “Long Time Coming.” Now in his thirties, Lang has managed to blend his influences into something cohesive. His new album “Signs” (released on Sept. 8) is a streamlined modern rock effort informed by Lang’s blues and R&B roots. And the first single “Bitter End” rocks as forcefully as anything Lang has ever done.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who plays at the Uptown Theater, debuted at age 18 with “Ledbetter Heights,” the first in a string of massively successful blues rock albums. Though young, he quickly found the niche that would sustain his career, playing a searing, blues-informed rock with plenty of space for his fretboard gymnastics. A classic rocker in a world where few like him remain, his new album “Lay It On Down” is muscular, concise and sure to please anyone who bemoans that there are no more guitar heroes.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.