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Kenny Wayne Shepherd @ Pabst Theater

Aug. 20, 2011

Aug. 24, 2011
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The city has had its share of long, hot summer days this year, but on Saturday night Milwaukee experienced the best kind of heat when Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his four-piece band took to the stage for a sold-out show at the Pabst Theater.

At 34, Shepherd is still standing high atop the blues-rock guitarist heap, blazing his way with a sound and fury rarely heard today. The fact that the self-taught guitar virtuoso has never learned to read music has been a plus, freeing him to create and play his own way, as the capacity crowd witnessed during the 100-minute rock 'n' blues celebration.

Shepherd and his band, fronted by the strong vocals of Noah Hunt, kicked off the evening with a number of new tunes from his recent release How I Go, emphasizing the hard-driving rock elements of "Never Lookin' Back" and "Come On Over." Shepherd effortlessly segued into one of many free-form guitar solos throughout the night, fingers flying faster than, well, the speed of sound.

Rather than dominate the mix, Hunt's growling yet solid vocals complemented Shepherd's lightning-fast guitar playing. Newcomer bassist Tony Franklin (The Firm) slammed out full-throttle fretless bass, providing a solid foundation to Shepherd's sonic soaring. Drummer Chris Layton and keyboardist Riley Osborn rounded out what proved to be a tight but wide-open expanse of sound.

Shepherd selectively reached back into his musical catalog, heading straight to the beginning with his first hit single, "Deja Voodoo." The song sounded just as seductive as it did 16 years ago, while at the same time providing a look at the evolution of his music. That extends to his unique take on covers as well, including his re-staking of Dylan territory in "Everything Is Broken" and "Oh Well" from the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac.

The blues, of course, were given their due. The moody thrum of "Dark Side of Love," from the new release, featured Hunt's vocals laying the groundwork for Shepherd's emotional, intense stylings.

Shepherd paid homage to his rock and blues forebears with his encores, saluting Muddy Waters with a rousing, high-energy take on Waters' double-entendres in "I'm a King Bee" and giving the crowd its highly anticipated, hoped-for choice of the true guitar anthem, Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child." Fifteen minutes later, Shepherd's journey through the intergalactic Hendrix classic came to a soaring end. An exhausted yet exhilarated Shepherd left the stage for one last time, and the crowd, ever satisfied, fell back to Earth.


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