Jonny Lang may not be the buzz-worthy artist that he was 10-15 years ago when he first hit the scene, but the guy’s still not even in his thirties yet. He remains a force to be reckoned with.
Fans did become divided over the blues-guitarist’s music when he became a born again Christian in 2002. The resulting change in sound sparked a bit of a backlash, first with his more soulful approach on 2003’s Long Time Coming and then 2006’s gospel-flavored Turn Around. But Lang has surely picked up some new fans too by branching out, especially appearing on gospel and CCM albums from the likes of Israel Houghton, Steven Curtis Chapman, and most recently, Dave Barnes.
Since it’s been a long four years since Lang’s last studio project, Live at the Ryman might not be the album fans waiting for new music are hoping for. But considering that it’s also Lang’s first concert album in his roughly 15-year career, it could also be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Lang’s talent has never been in dispute or veiled on his studio project. But he lets loose with his remarkable gifts here. Of course he’s a blues guitarist extraordinaire—guitar heads can debate what distinguishes his technique or where he ranks among the all-time greats, but the dude can play. More surprising is his vocal prowess, sounding like a blues veteran 10-20 years older than he really his. Lang really goes for it with gusto on this album—perhaps too much at times, given some of his crazy improvisation on a few tracks, but those moments are outshined by the sweet spots. And on top of all that, it’s often forgotten that Lang is a songwriter—maybe not a great one, but good enough to co-write some original blues-pop and rock.
All that is on display at this concert recorded at Nashville’s legendary auditorium. It’s a predictable album, but pretty much everything you would want in a live project. The recording quality is excellent, Lang is in fine form, and he’s supported by a solid backing band that knows when to lay back and when to play out. (I have to believe this is also the kind of album that 2010 American Idol finalist Casey James would love to record. Not to suggest he’s anywhere near as good as Lang.)
As expected, most of the songs are highlights from Lang’s Turn Around album. There’s range to the soulful “One Person at a Time” and funky numbers like “Bump in the Road” and “Don’t Stop (For Anything).” He delivers the slow stomp of “Turn Around” with the soulful simmer of a chain gang singing a spiritual, while “Thankful” offers pure gospel joy.
There’s also a couple soulful performances from the Long Time Coming album—“Give Me Up Again” and “Red Light.” The latter in particular, co-written by R&B artist Anthony Hamilton, might understandably frustrate hardcore blues fans, starting off on the softer side. But Lang works it into an epic 10-minute number that becomes more powerful as it develops, throwing in some reggae and blues with an inspirational chorus of “Everything is gonna be alright.” Suffice it to say, Lang also ties it into his newfound faith nicely.
Good to hear that Lang hasn’t abandoned his roots since becoming a Christian. He just selects the songs most compatible with his sound and personal beliefs. Dipping from 1998’s Wander This World, his cover of Prince’s “I Am” may strike listeners as a song about desire, but it’s also about the desire to become a better man—“All the riches in this world mean nothing without you here.” And Lang actually begins “Breakin’ Me” with a gentle guitar solo of “I Love You Lord” before transitioning into his soft pop song of romantic longing.
Reaching back further to 1997’s Lie to Me, Lang tackles the classic blues of “A Quitter Never Wins” (by fellow blues great Tinsley Ellis) with passionate optimism. Finishing off the show is “Lie to Me,” a Lang standard by his longtime keyboardist Bruce McCabe.
For some reason, despite the different styles touched on in tangent to Lang’s core blues sound, there’s a sameness to this album that gets a little tiresome at times—particularly in Lang’s guitar solos and the overall shape of several arrangements. But that’s a minor quibble for a strong concert recording. Live at the Ryman boasts plenty of fair to good blues-pop and rock, made great by the passionate performance of Jonny Lang.
Standouts: “A Quitter Never Wins,” “One Person at a Time,” “Bump in the Road”