Two weeks before he called the Straight to chat about his smokin' new album and his upcoming Vancouver gig with Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang was on the stage of Atlanta's historic Fox Theatre as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour. His set involved trading licks with Aerosmith's Brad Whitford on the Hendrix tunes “Fire”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Spanish Castle Magic”.
Rather surprisingly, Lang didn't play one note on the type of guitar Hendrix is known for: the Fender Stratocaster. His main instrument these days is a '58 Gibson Les Paul reissue.
“I've never been a Strat guy,” explains Lang, on the line from his L.A. home. “That's the Catch-22 there. I tried to bring a Strat out for that Hendrix thing and I couldn't do it, man.”
Lang was joined on the tour by such dedicated Strat-slingers as Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Eric Clapton sideman Doyle Bramhall II, who Lang describes as “incredible”. But it was Johnson's rendition of “Are You Experienced”—the title track of Hendrix's 1967 debut album—that really blew him away.
“Everybody was killer,” raves Lang, “but Eric Johnson was just outstanding the whole tour.”
When asked to pick his favourite Hendrix album, Lang comes up blank—“He's one of those guys where it's like everything”—but he does recall that he first heard the legendary axeman's music when he was 12. That was three years before Lang scored international success with his major-label debut, Lie to Me, and had to deal with the spotlight of fame while still a kid.
“It definitely had aspects that were distracting,” recounts the blond blues-rocker, “but it all pales in comparison to just my love for music and tryin' to keep that the priority.”
Lang's efforts in that regard paid off recognitionwise when his 2006 release, Turn Around, took home a Grammy for best rock or rap gospel album. “I didn't even give any thought to the fact that it would be nominated in that category,” he points out, “or nominated at all!”
The songs from Turn Around that appear on his new album, Live at the Ryman, aren't given a decidedly gospel treatment, but there's no denying the spiritual element at work there.
“The root of any message that I convey in a song comes from my relationship with God,” relates Lang, “but I try not to make it a preachy thing. I just try to make it something that people can relate to, or a blessing that could help somebody, you know.”
When you hear Lang's anguished vocals you can't help but be reminded of the emotional singing style of his current tourmate Buddy Guy. And Lang would be the first to admit that he's picked up a few things from the 73-year-old Chicago blues icon—just like Hendrix did before him.
“Oh man, I've stolen countless things from Buddy Guy,” Lang concedes with a chuckle. “Things I probably don't even know that I've stolen.”
Jonny Lang plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Sunday (April 18).