Plenty of acts that hit the stage at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles use light shows and video displays to wow the audience, and I’ve gotten goose bumps with such wild entertainment at the fair in the past.
On July 28, a killer act performed at the Chumash Grandstand Arena. But instead of theatrics, his weapon of choice was a Fender Stratocaster with a whammy bar.
When blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band took the stage following a set by Jonny Lang, there were no pyrotechnics, no fancy enhancements to make the audience scream. But make no mistake — Shepherd’s music had more thunder and lightning than any pre-recorded show or fireworks display I’ve ever seen.
I grew up with blues bands, though I didn’t realize it at the time. One of the first albums I bought was “Disraeli Gears” by Cream; there was nothing but the blues from Eric Clapton and company on that one.
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I’ve also experienced some really great local bar bands, such as Pacific Street Blues and Park Hotel, that played mostly blues and had a big impact on my life.
For my money, there is no one better at blues guitar today than Shepherd, who co-headlined the fair’s second annual Evening of Blues and Brews.
The laidback Shreveport, Louisiana, native hit the stage wearing jeans and a baseball shirt. Although he looked pretty casual, he got right down to work with one of his biggest hits “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” with longtime bandmate Noah Hunt handling the vocals. The crowd loved it.
One of the biggest influences on Shepherd’s music is Stevie Ray Vaughan, who he met at the age of 7. So, it came as no surprise when, a few songs later, Shepherd went into a rousing cover of Vaughan’s “The House Is Rocking” with Shepherd himself taking over vocal duties.
While Hunt’s voice has a rich, deep tone, Shepherd’s voice is a bit higher, which was perfect for this song.
Shepherd mixed in some original tunes, (“Heat of the Sun,” “Born with a Broken Heart”) with covers that paid homage to some of his blues heroes. He and his band performed “Talk to Me Baby,” the Elmore James classic; “Come On,” originally done by Earl King; and the booty-shaking “Looking Back” from Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Shepherd then launched into a tribute to B.B. King, another major influence in his life.
Shepherd and his band played a medley of King’s tunes that included “Woke Up this Morning,” “Let the Good Times Roll” and “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now.”
When they came back on stage for their encore, they started with one of my all-time favorite Shepherd songs, “Blue on Black” and finished with a cover of the Jimi Hendrix song “Voodoo Child.” Needless to say, Shepherd killed them both.
Though Shepherd’s band that night consisted of only four musicians, including Tony Franklin on bass and Chris Layton on drums, the wall of sound they threw out knocked my socks off. It was proof that pyrotechnics and electronics aren’t necessary for a stellar show to rock your world.
The Chumash Grandstand Arena is maybe not the best venue for music — with its bovine fragrance, dirt underfoot and occasionally lousy acoustics. Plus, the pumped-up fair crowds consuming mass quantities of alcohol can sometimes be a bit obnoxious.
But with a guitarist as awesome as Shepherd, those things hardly mattered. The night clearly belonged to the blues and no one does it better.
From where I stand, he’s the king of the blues.
Kristi Marinelly is a designer at The Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com.