Last night I had the absolute pleasure to witness artistic musicality at its finest. Jonny Lang took the stage at the FM Kirby Center in Wilkes Barre, PA to increase his flock of true believers and further cement the loyalty of his army of fans.
Jonny Lang started playing guitar at twelve and soon joined a band, releasing the album Smokin’ when only fourteen. This led to getting signed to a major and he has since released several very successful albums that blend blues, rock, gospel and soul. He has toured with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Jeff Beck and Sting amongst others.
I am going to attempt to paint a mental picture of what was placed before me last night. Jonny Lang plays with such ease and focus; it’s as if he is possessed by every Guitar God living or dead all at the same time. Now, immediately after Jonny’s finished giving us, the audience, our first demonstration or lesson on shredding, I find myself looking downward, worried that I may have just looked directly into the Ark of the Covenant.
During his next song, as I am feeling my face to make sure it is in fact still intact…Jonny does something that stops every breath in the venue, he sings. His vocal ability, performance and range, coupled with his age-defying soulfulness are nothing less than awe-inspiring. Of course, Jonny has been doing this for quite some time now. Though youthful in appearance, his wisdom, created and tested by his talent and experience shine through in everything he touches.
His latest album, “Fight for My Soul”, is his seventh. Six years in the making, it consists of eleven tracks and features his most noticeable trademarks; his gritty, authentic blues voice and highly distinctive guitar solos. Both are showcased on the opening track ‘Blew Up (The House)’, an upbeat, anthemic stormer that blends rock, blues and a country to create a powerful musical tour de force. ‘Breakin’ In’ is funkier and poppier with a very catchy chorus that you could imagine being produced by Maroon 5, however with a sound much harder than they might attempt. ‘We Are The Same’ starts with some bluesy guitar but bursts into a soul/gospel epic, replete with swirling Motown strings and a colossal gospel-tinged chorus which is pure Stevie Wonder. Lang’s remarkable voice makes sure the music always carries his unique stamp. ‘What You’re Looking For’ slows things down, showing his more lyrical side with some thoughtful, wise ruminations on how we create our own reality. It features a wonderfully angular, unpredictable guitar solo before building to a soulful climax aided by female backing vocals. ‘Not Right’ changes the pace once more, a strutting funk-rock song with a firm groove and a memorable falsetto-led chorus that shows a possible and interesting Prince influence. ‘The Truth’ takes us into rock ballad territory, a love song with an absolutely superb vocal performance. It makes you think of lighters being waved in the air, the suitably attention-grabbing guitar solo simply demanding to be performed on a cliff top in the video. The Motown vibe returns on ‘River’, which has a jazzy verse and bridge before launching into a call and response chorus with his incredibly talented and well-chosen backing singers.
Next comes the album title track, which adds reggae to the list of eclectic genres that Lang’s music encompasses, though it is still bluesier than anything Sting would sing. Track nine, ‘All Of A Sudden’, is a beautifully written acoustic ballad that lets Jonny express his gentler side, with some fine falsetto work.
‘Seasons’ is a particularly remarkable track, which is hugely ambitious in its scope, starting out like Bruce Springsteen covering Paul Simon before building into a sky-scraping epic that takes some wonderfully unexpected twists and turns. The poignant, scenic lyrics are a real song writing craftsman at work, and Lang cites this as his personal favorite on the album. ‘I’ll Always Be’ carries on the emotional vein, a seven-minute love song of almost operatic grandeur that has Lange at the top of his vocal range. It’s a perfect finale, bowing out with all guns blazing. Overall, this is a truly fantastic album that runs the gamut of emotions as well as fuses diverse musical styles with seamless cohesion and consummate skill. You can hear the amount of time and effort spent on every detail of the music and not one song drags, despite an average length of around five minutes. It’s hard to imagine him making a better album than this one, but I have hope and personally can’t wait.
Jonny ended his first set with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 hit single ‘Living for the City,’ which garnered a standing ovation. He re-emerged with an acoustic guitar for a solo encore of ‘Breakin’ Me’ from the Grammy-nominated 1998 album ‘Wander This World’ and a version of ‘Lie to Me’ that started out a slow acoustic before the whole band came back for another ending worthy of a standing ovation.
After Jonny’s set, things became even more interesting and I very quickly learned something I was not expecting to. I was invited backstage to meet and say hello to Jonny. I had no idea what I would say other than, “nice to meet you” while the typical hoping a magical spark upon shaking his hand might bestow upon me 1/1,000,000 of his God-given talent (nope, didn’t)…and having even less knowledge of what is personality might be. What I discovered, was an incredibly kind, soft-spoken, humble, appreciative human being. This to me is the very measure of a man. Knowing and accepting how very exceptional one is at what they do and tempering that knowledge equally with pure gratitude. Where smaller men might exploit their talent, Jonny embraces it, is grateful for it and finds happiness in simply sharing it.
What I learned in about 5 minutes is that Jonny Lang is not only what I would call a living Guitar God…but truly a Great Man.
CHECK HIM OUT! Oh…and Jonny, should you read this; make sure your golf clubs are ready to go when I do see you again. 🙂