The Traveler, the ninth studio album from the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, picks up where 2017’s Lay It On Down left off. Guitar prodigy Shepherd again focuses on tightly crafted blues-rock songs, forgoing excessive six-string histrionics in favor of a subtler approach that favors composition over licks and solos.
The ten-track album features eight originals and two covers – a soulful cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and a jamming rendition of Joe Walsh’s “Turn To Stone.” The songs on The Traveler are tight and streamlined, with no particularly lengthy solos and little frenetic fretboard shredding. This deep into his career, Shepherd seems no longer interested in playing the guitar hero, at least on the studio recordings. Instead, the focus is on good blues-based rock songs with catchy grooves, sing-along choruses, and memorable lead moments. Shepherd still shows his six-string mastery, especially on “Turn To Stone,” but he does so in much smaller doses.
With the exception of the two covers, Shepherd wrote each song. Unlike with Lay It On Down, which had a few cringe-worthy moments, the lyrics are good enough but never exceptional. Shepherd and Noah Hunt share lead vocal duties. Hunt is still the better singer, with more power and soulful expression in his voice, but Shepherd has become a more confident and versatile singer, as evidenced by his smooth croon in “Gravity.” “See you clear when my eyes are closed,” Shepherd sings, asking a lover to go all in on the relationship.
The album opens with the catchy string-bending riffs of “Woman Like You.” Over a strutting rhythm, Hunt describes a woman he meets as “the right kind of wrong that I want to fall into.” Three songs into the album, Shepherd takes over lead vocals for the first time. The infectious blues romp “I Want You” combines a standard blues riff with horn flourishes and modern crunching drums.
The main riff in “We All Alright” – played at different octaves in the verses and choruses — sounds the most like vintage Kenny Wayne Shepherd, featuring the guitarist’s trademark vibrato and just enough fuzz to add extra bite. The song’s solo features some of the album’s best guitar moments, with Shepherd shredding through licks heavy in legato and deep string bends. “Better With Time” and “Take It On Home” both show Shepherd’s penchant for using hammer-ons to add spice to the songs’ chords.
Fans of Shepherd’s early work may lament the lack of show-off moments. Aside from a few licks here and there, the guitar work is not the main feature, instead of being used to serve the song. Even the guitar solos that are there are shorter, with Shepherd keeping a controlled flow to the songs rather than delving into long jams. The songs themselves, though, are as good as ever, with Shepherd and Hunt’s vocal harmonies and swaggering rhythms coming to the forefront.
Photo by Leslie Michele Derrough