Price: $45 - $65 Reserved Seating
For the last quarter-century, riding shotgun with Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been the greatest road-trip in rock 'n' roll. Gone is the young Louisiana gunslinger who erupted onto the early-'90s scene with his burn-it-down guitar solos and gut-punch songcraft. The man he's become is even more magnetic, still pushing his Fender Strat where others fear to fret, while diving deep into human truths and personal evolution with an honesty that only comes with miles on the clock. If that quarter-century journey has taught Shepherd anything, it's that there's no such thing as mission accomplished. A restless creativity has driven Shepherd ever since he taught himself to play guitar at the age of 7. A musician in constant motion, Shepherd has spent his career burning up the highways and crossing continents, bringing his unique style of rock/blues to the world.
Like all the great songwriters, Shepherd's studio catalogue has always been the best way to get to know the reserved musician. His path was set from childhood, as he copped the licks from the records brought home by his radio DJ/Program Director father and was sent reeling from a "life-changing" meeting with Stevie Ray Vaughan to make his own stage debut at the age of 13. With early albums like his Platinum selling Ledbetter Heights, his Platinum selling Trouble Is..., his Gold selling Live On and The Place You're In, the blues-rock scene hailed its most honest new songwriter and guitar hero with a plethora of awards including two Billboard Music Awards, two Orville H. Gibson Awards and two Grammy nominations. Shepherd continued writing, recording and touring, chronicling the highs and hard times, while dousing his shows with guitar pyrotechnics. "The first five years of my career," he remembers, "I was on tour non-stop. I'd probably go home for two weeks a year."
The year 2007 brought the ambitious Platinum selling DVD/CD project 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads, for which Shepherd received two more Grammy nominations. In the documentary, he and his band traveled throughout the American South to record with such blues icons as B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins and David "Honeyboy" Edwards. 2010 saw the release of Shepherd's long-awaited first live album, Live! In Chicago, recorded at Chicago's House of Blues during the all-star Legends tour supporting 10 Days Out. The live disc debuted at #1 on Billboard's Blues chart, marking the 5th time he had a #1 debut as well as receiving yet another Grammy nomination.
In 2011, the now seasoned performer and songwriter stopped off to release the acclaimed How I Go and in 2013, Shepherd became one-third of blues-rock supergroup The Rides, with legendary veterans Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills & Nash) and Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag). The Rides toured extensively, and have released two acclaimed albums, Can't Get Enough and Pierced Arrow, that further illuminate Shepherd's depth and proficiency as a songwriter, guitar player and now vocalist.
In 2014, the rocket-fueled collaboration covers album, Goin' Home was introduced and 2017 saw the release of Lay It On Down which was followed by 2019's The Traveler, which reaches across the battle lines of a planet that has never been so divided and showcases Shepherd's ever-evolving songwriting. The Traveler also marked the 8th time Shepherd had a release debut at #1 on the Billboard Blues charts.
In an industry that's changed drastically over the years, Shepherd's versatility and drive has served him well. He plans to keep making music and to keep touring, "I don't have any intention of sitting idly. We're a live band, and when people listen to our records, I want them to hear what we sound like when we play live. I just want to keep moving and keep creating and keep doing what I love - for as long as I possibly can..."
That was my mission on this album: To really set these songs up so that they have a life of their own," says Samantha Fish about Kill or Be Kind, her sixth solo album and her debut on Rounder Records. "Strong messages from the heart - that's what I really set out for." Indeed, what comes across immediately on hearing the album is the extraordinary level of songcraft on its eleven tracks, the way these songs are so smartly put together to deliver a potent emotional impact.
Anyone who has ever heard Fish's previous albums knows that she has earned a place in the top rank of contemporary blues guitarists and that her voice can wring the soul out of a ballad and belt out a rocker with roof-shaking force. And, rest reassured, those virtues are fully in evidence on Kill or Be Kind. But each of the songs on the album does far more than simply provide a setting for Fish's pyrotechnics. They tell captivating stories, set up by verses that deftly set the scene, choruses that lift with real feeling, and hooks that later rise up in your thoughts, even when you're not aware that you're thinking of music at all. It's the kind of songwriting that emerges when raw talent is leavened by experience and aspiration, and when a committed artist genuinely has something to say. Those qualities make Kill or Be Kind a genuine artistic breakthrough for Fish.
"I think I've grown as a performer and as a player," she explains. "I've become more respectful of the melody. You can go up and down the fret board and up and down your vocal register, but that's not going to be as powerful as conveying a simple melody that people can really connect to and sing themselves." To help bring those elements to her music, Fish sought out high-quality songwriting collaborators - the likes of Jim McCormick (who has worked with Fish before and also written for Luke Bryan and Keith Urban); Kate Pearlman (who has worked with Kelly Clarkson); Patrick Sweeney; Parker Millsap; and Eric McFadden. The result is an album on which each song is distinct, but the complete work hangs together as a coherent, entirely satisfying statement. "When you get to this point in your life as an artist," Fish says, "it's good to work with others, because it makes you stretch. I think you hear a lot of that nuance on the record, songs that have a pop sensibility to them, hooks that really pull you in."
You get a good sense of the range the album covers from the first two songs released. Fish propels "Watch It Die" with an insistent guitar riff, but near the song's end two female background singers lend the song a haunting soulful feel. Meanwhile, "Love Letters" moves on an insinuating, stop-time riff in its verses until it bursts in passion on its chorus. Both songs use horn sections for finesse and texture. "Love Letters" also introduces one of the album's central themes: the allure of losing yourself in love - and the dangers of it. "Keep waking up in the bed I made," Fish sings. "Forget the pain when you wanna play/I'm back to broken when you go away."
"That's just a love-sick song," Fish says, laughing. "like I think I was when I wrote it." The title track, a seductive ballad, offers a lover a stark choice: "Make up your mind/I can kill or be kind." To explain that dichotomy, Fish says, "It's funny how love can be so fickle, how quickly you go from object of affection to one of disdain. I've always found that dynamic interesting. That track is full of that duality. ," she adds, laughing. "I also loved the Memphis sound of the horns on there. They sound modern, but it's got this vintage feeling as well." The songs "Dirty," "Love Your Lies" and "Fair-Weather" explore similar themes - how deceit, self-deception and shifting expectations can alter the course of life and love. The affecting ballad "Dream Girl" stands the endearment of its title on its head, and explores the dilemma of a love not coming to fruition. "I wish you'd take the rest of me," Fish sings. "These tears, they kill your fantasy." On "She Don't Live Around Here Anymore," a soul ballad once again bolstered by tasteful horn parts, the singer confronts the feeling of being used and finds empowerment in walking away.
The album is framed by songs -- "Bulletproof" and "You Got It Bad (Better Than You Ever Had)." "Bulletproof digs into the theme of vulnerability, about it being mistaken for weakness, and how we often times feel the need to wear a mask to survive in the world today, while "You Got It Bad (Better Than You Ever Had)" is about working towards your dreams and the knifes edge we often walk to reach our goals.
"Trying Not to Fall in Love With You" finds the singer not wanting to rush a relationship - and therefore undermine it. "I fall fast," Fish admits, "I have to remember to take care and not scare the person away."
To make Kill or Be Kind, Fish chose to work at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis, with Scott Billington as producer. "I worked at Royal before, when I made my Wild Heartalbum," she says. "The soul in the walls, the vibe - you can feel it in that place. I'm such a fan of Al Green, Ann Peebles and all the classic recordings that happened there. Memphis just kept calling to me. I've always felt so inspired there." As for Billington, a three-time Grammy winner, Fish appreciated both his open-mindedness and his willingness to ease her out of her comfort zone. "Scott allowed me to see the building-out process of the album all the way through, from the top to the bottom," she says. "Bringing in background singers and synthesizers, which I'd never done on an album before, that added an extra edge. Honestly, it was a challenge. It pushed me to think about the songs differently. That trust from my producer gave me the freedom to really take some risks."
Having completed an album that she believes in so strongly - "This is me coming through, my personality," she says - Fish is eager to bring it to the world. "I got the moon in the back of my mind, and I want to shoot for it!" she declares. "I want to reach over genre lines and get out to as many people as possible. This album is so broad - and it's all me. So I'm just hoping it catches people and appeals to them."
She concludes, "Overall my big goal, career-wise, is to contribute something different and new to music. I want to give something that stands apart and yet is timeless." With Kill or Be Kind, Samantha Fish is well on her way along that path. - Anthony DeCurtis