“When we got together and started writing and playing together it was very inspirational for me.” – Kenny Wayne Shepherd
The way Kenny Wayne Shepherd tells it, The Rides – the new group in which he features with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg – was originally inspired by the famous 1968 Supersession album.
To use a cricketing analogy, that’s a bit like the current Australian cricket team saying they are inspired by Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles! They might be inspired by it but they probably will not be able to emulate the originals. The reach is always going to exceed the grasp.
Same with The Rides. Yet, according to the 36 year-old Shepherd, the plan to emulate that famous Super Session album morphed in to something different the moment the musicians got together.
The resultant album, Can’t Get Enough, has its quota of blues songs and four songs penned by the musicians involved but the fact that the music stretches to include a version of Iggy & The Stooges’ ‘Search And Destroy’ and Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ places it into a different realm – much more blues rock than its inspiration.
Back in 1968, twenty-two Stephen Stills, who was about to leave Buffalo Springfield, got together with a duo of twenty-two year olds in guitarist Mike Bloomfield from the Electric Flag and keyboardist Al Kooper (that’s him on Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’) who had recently departed Blood, Sweat & Tears. Both Kooper and Bloomfield had worked together on the Highway 61 Revisited sessions and had played with Dylan at the infamous Newport Folk Festival appearance in July 1965.
Adding Harvey Brooks on bass and ‘Fast’ Eddie Hoh on drums, the session took place over two days in May 1968 with Stills recruited for the second day’s session because Bloomfield failed to turn up (he appeared on the first five songs only). The album contained three originals from Kooper and Bloomfield, one from Brooks and five covers including Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,’ and Donovan’s ‘Season The Witch,’ given an epic reading of over 11-minutes that made it probably the best-known song on the album.
Supersession peaked at No.12 on the charts and is claimed to have set the scene for a whole rash of similar projects. Kooper and Bloomfield went on to tour together and release The Live Adventures Of album, which was to contain only one song from Super Session.
The idea for The Rides, according to Shepherd, came from a friend of his, producer Billy Bentley who was chatting to Elliot Roberts – who manages Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg, as well as Neil Young.
“Anyway, Bill and Eliot were having dinner one night and they were just tossing around ideas that they thought would be cool,” explains Shepherd, “and they started focusing on the concept of doing a new version of the Super Session record. Barry played piano on a few of the songs on that original album and then it featured Stephen and Al Kooper and then Mike Bloomfield. That was the original concept.
“Then they started looking who would the other guitar player be because Mike Bloomfield obviously is no longer with us. My name came up and then when Stephen heard my name being brought up he was like, ‘Oh yes, I know Kenny. That sounds great.’ They called me and asked me if I was interested in doing a record and doing a new version of the Super Session album.”
The original plan started to change when the musicians got together at Stills’ house and started writing some new songs together. (In the studio, the trio is augmented by drummer Chris Layton, from Double Trouble and Shepherd’s band, and bassist Kevin McCormick).
“Once we started the writing process, the direction of the album took a different turn,” says Shepherd. “It really became that we were collaborating like a band would and the material wasn’t along the lines of the Super Session record. It was becoming something unique and completely its own. We decided that this really was going to end up being a band and we are writing as a band and we are going to record as a band and it ended up that this is our debut record as a band.”
While most people are familiar with Stephen Still’s career, Barry Goldberg is less well-known and more of a ‘musician’s musician.’ Apart from his blues background, he played with Dylan at his famous 1965 Newport Folk Festival appearance, produced albums by Percy Sledge, James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite and written songs that have been recorded by Gladys Knight, Joe Cocker, Gram Parsons and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.
“He’s got a lot of history going as far as blues goes going way back to his youth,” notes Shepherd, “and he had the opportunity. He was living in Chicago and he got to play with a lot of the blues legends: Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and just all of those guys that were part of the Chicago blues scene. Him and Mike Bloomfield hit it off very early on in their life and they became to a degree inseparable. They were involved in varying degrees with each other’s projects over the years and they were part of The Electric Flag together.
“Barry has played on an amazing array of albums. I believe he played on the ‘Highway 61’ track with Dylan and I think Dylan produced one of Barry’s records, one of his solo albums, back in the day. Really interesting and amazing stuff. He’s been a pretty successful songwriter as well as – written songs that other people have recorded and had hits with. He’s really a pretty interesting musician that has had quite impressive career up to this point.”
I suggest to Shepherd that it would be rather daunting for him to have to fill the shoes of Goldberg’s late friend Mike Bloomfield if the original concept had held.
“It is, yes it is,” he agrees. “But because the way this project developed from the original concept of doing a new Super Session album to what it actually is now, it’s not so much that I’m really trying to fill Mike Bloomfield’s shoes. It’s almost like this has turned into something different to the point that I’m just filling a position that was created for me. It’s not necessarily that I’m really trying to fill his shoes, though in the beginning that to a degree was the case, because I would have been filling that role in the project had we completely decided to go down that path.”
At the same time Shepherd acknowledges that Stills, although he might be best known for his vocals, is a highly under-rated guitarist. I mention that I saw him with Crosby and Nash at Bluesfest last year and that his playing was as fiery as ever.
“I guess a lot of people, the general public, focus on his voice and his song writing and stuff,” agrees Shepherd, “but Rolling Stone Magazine has consistently listed him as one of the top 100 greatest guitar players of all time. He’s pretty high up there. I think musicians certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for his guitar abilities. He’s still got it and it was a pretty amazing experience working with him in the studio: first of all, because he’s so well-known for his voice and I’m a guy that sings every once in a while, although I’m getting more comfortable and singing more as my career progresses.”
“I was waiting to see what might happen because they wanted me to sing at least one or two songs on the record,” he continues, “but when we got together and started writing and playing together it was very inspirational for me. It actually inspired me and motivated me even more to sing.
“The same thing happened with our guitar playing because Stephen and I have two different styles of playing though our roots come from the same genre. We both have a lot of blues influences in our music and in our playing but two different styles of playing the guitar. They actually worked very well together and we were really feeding off of each other’s energy throughout the recording process.”
Of course, Stills and Goldberg had established their reputations a decade before Shepherd was even born, though he has packed plenty of experience into his life so far, beginning his recording career at 18. He has also enjoyed seven No.1 albums on the Billboard Blues charts, opened for the Rolling Stones, played with BB King and the late Hubert Sumlin and, at the age of just seven, met his hero Stevie Ray Vaughan.
When I observe that both Stills and Goldberg had established their careers at least a decade before he was born and also mention that he must pinch himself in the studio when he is standing there next to them, Shepherd seems to infer that I am asking him to justify his place in the trio (which I was not).
“I’m certainly honoured to be a part of this group and to be collaborating with these guys,” he says, “but at the same time I’ve been doing this now for twenty years myself. They’ve certainly got a few decades on me as far as their careers go but I feel like after 20 years and all the things that I’ve done in my career, I feel like I earned my place in the band. I feel that we look at each other as equals within the scope of this band.
“Let me tell you, Stephen and Barry have a lot to offer by the way of just pure experience from doing this in for so many years. Recording in the studio, writing songs with Stephen Stills and Barry was incredible. Every time you write with somebody different you learn something new and there’s certainly a lot that could be learned from those guys as far as song writing goes – but also being in the studio. They’re both very creative and between the three of us there is vast enough knowledge and technique and experience that was brought to the table and making in this record, but I learned a lot just by sitting back and observing.”
The song writing collaboration has produced a couple of songs that could easily be at home on a Stills solo album of even a CSN album. ‘Don’t Want Lies’ and ‘Only Teardrops Fall’ both feature some very tasteful solos from Stills and Shepherd.
“I’m really proud of that song,” says Shepherd of ‘Don’t Want Lies.’ “That’s actually when we got together the three for us for the first time to write [and]one of the first ideas that I threw out at them was the music for that song. That’s actually a guitar riff and chord progression that I wrote twelve years ago. I had written a song to it but I lost the lyrics. That was really before the days of modern technology where you have a voice recorder at your fingertips with your phone. I had written that song a long time ago and I lost it but I’d always remember the music.
“I played the music to them and Stephen instantly loved it. Then he actually added to it and created the chord progression for the chorus and he wrote the vocal melody and the three of us collaborated on the lyrics together. I’m just really pleased with the outcome. The vocal melody is just beautiful, it’s classic Stephen Stills and it was really fascinating to watch that song progress as we wrote it and to see how it developed just by writing it with Stephen and the influence that he had on it.”
“I’m singing almost half the record and Stephen sings in the other half,” replies Shepherd when I ask him how they decided on vocal duties for each song. “The way it worked out is Stephen is singing all of the new songs really just about for no other reason than when we wrote the songs during the writing process Stephen was the one that was singing the lyrics as we wrote them and he was helping to refine and write the vocal melody. All of his songs were really written around his voice so it obviously was appropriate for him to sing them.
“Then when it came time to pick some of the cover tunes they both looked at me and said, ‘What do you think? What should we do?’ I naturally gravitated towards songs that I could see myself singing and songs that I have always wanted to record and that I thought that I could do a good job on. I ended up singing all of the cover songs, with the exception of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World,’ because I chose them and I thought that each one of them would bring a different groove and a different element to the album. I also thought they were all songs that I could execute very well.”
The surprise on the album has to be ‘Search And Destroy’ – a song that you would never normally associated with any of the players here. This song was chosen by producer Jerry Harrison, with whom Shepherd has worked previously.
“It is pretty fascinating when people see that,” laughs Shepherd. “I think everybody’s a bit surprised about it. Jerry’s very good at that. He’s very good at picking songs that he feels an artist can do a good job of but are outside the box of what the general public would expect. This is certainly one of those situations.
“I have the benefit of working with Jerry for so long. We were doing records and he would be like, ‘What do you think about doing this song?’ I would look at him like, ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about?’ As years have gone by I’ve actually learned to humour him and go out and just give it a try – the worst thing that can happen is that you maybe just waste a couple of hours working on a song and it doesn’t go on the record and you just move on.
“Originally, Stephen and Barry were like, What is he talking about? In the meantime I was learning the song and trying to figure out an arrangement that would be appropriate sounding for this band. Thankfully, everybody went into this and left their egos at home. There’s no egos in the studio. Even though Barry and Stephen weren’t really into it at first, they still walked out there and played the song and gave it a shot and then once it was done everybody was really impressed with it. Now those guys love it and it’s probably one of our favourite tracks on the record.”
Shepherd got to choose several blues songs for the album: Muddy Waters’ ‘Honey Bee’ and Elmore James ‘Talk To Me Baby,’ though he took a few liberties with the latter.
“I’ve always loved Muddy Waters,” notes Shepherd. “He’s always been one of my favourite blues artists and vocalists and that’s one of my favourite songs of his. I was excited to have the opportunity and the right setting for me to record that song and sing it.
“The same thing with Elmore James’ ‘Talk To Me Baby.’ I’ve always loved that song and I’ve always thought I could do a great version of it because his vocal range is very similar to mine and I really like his style of singing. But I took a couple of creative liberties with that song where I created … I took the ‘Talk To Me Baby’ part – where in his version he only ever sings that part once almost like it’s a verse – but I repeated it a couple of times to really turn it into a bona fide chorus for the song and then added the girl background singers to do a call and answer thing which I think makes it even more catchy and more of a hook. I think the end result is pretty good.”
The Rides are out on tour in the USA during August and September and Shepherd hopes that they might make it out to Bluesfest next year.
“Hopefully they can get us over there to Australia,” he says enthusiastically. “If for nothing else maybe the Byron Bay Bluesfest or something in that nature. I love Australia. My wife is Australian, so any chance I get to come over there I’d take the opportunity.
The Rides Can’t Get Enough is available from August 23 via Universal.
The Rides Tour Dates:
Wednesday August 28 – New York NY – Iridium Jazz Club
Thursday August 29 – New York NY – Iridium Jazz Club
Sunday September 1 – Atlantic City NJ -Tropicana Hotel & Casino
Tuesday September 3 – Englewood NJ – Bergen Performing Arts Center
Thursday September 5 – Ridgefield CT – The Ridgefield Playhouse
Saturday September 7 – Boston MA – Wilbur Theatre
Sunday September 8 – Westbury NY -Theatre at Westbury
Tuesday September 10 – Munhall PA – Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead
Friday September 13 – Milwaukee WI – Pabst Theater
Saturday September 14 – Cincinnati OH – PNC Pavilion at Riverbend
Monday September 16 – Lexington KY – Lexington Opera House
Friday September 20 – Houston TX – Arena Theatre
Saturday September 21 – Austin TX – ACL Live at the Moody Theatre
Tuesday September 24 – Riverside CA – Fox Performing Arts Center
Wednesday September 25 – San Francisco CA – The Fillmore
Friday September 27-13 Reno NV – Grand Sierra Resort & Casino