The great blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd turns 30 in mid-June, but he’s definitely an old soul, wise beyond his years and overflowing with talent. He’s been turning heads since he was 13, making a slew of pretty good records, but this CD/DVD combo is unquestionably his masterpiece (so far). Okay, it might not be what those who just want to hear him play screaming leads are looking for. In fact, Shepherd isn’t really even the star of this set; the blues is.
Here’s the story: A couple of years ago, Shepherd and a film and audio crew spent 10 days traveling across the South, hunting down famous and obscure bluesmen (and one woman) to talk about the blues, about their lives and to play some down-home music. Their travels took them from New Orleans into Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Missouri and Kansas, and along the way they managed to brush up against all sorts of different blues styles and encounter a whole lot of really fascinating musicians, some of them in their nineties, but still playing. Shepherd is our unassuming tour guide and narrator—he is both friendly and appropriately reverential…and he just also happens to play a mean guitar, acoustic or electric. However, this is most definitely not some KWS star trip—he is there to let others tell the story, and if there is to be some pickin’ to be done, well, he did, in fact, bring a guitar or two…and, occasionally, a fantastic rhythm section: Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon, better known as Double Trouble during their many years with the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn (who was a big influence on Shepherd).
I can’t say enough good things about the 100-minute documentary DVD. The director/cinematographer Noble Jones, and his editor, Mark Morton, do an amazing job of communicating the feeling of Southern back roads, and what the lives of these mainly elderly blues musicians have been like (and are now). We go into their homes, hear them play music on their porches, we go into churches, eat “beer-can chicken”, pull up a chair at a juke joint…It’s all so atmospheric, but always artful. It’s also extremely informative, offering a virtual history of the blues through its multiple storytellers, but never in a pedantic way.
Though this is ostensibly a music movie, we rarely see an entire performance of a song (all but one are preserved in their entirety on the CD)—the filmmakers clearly have other fish to fry, other ways to tell their tale. But, needless to say, the music performances are profoundly soulful. There are a few big names on board, and they all shine: Gatemouth Brown, captured shortly before his death, plays guitar and fiddle and spins a few yarns; B.B. King reprises “The Thrill Is Gone” in his hometown of Indianola, Miss., where he has long been admired as a favorite son; and an old wooden church in Salina, Kansas, hosts alumni of Howlin’ Wolf’s and Muddy Waters’ bands, including Hunbert Sumlin (quite spry at 73) and Pinetop Perkins (still tickling the ivories at 90). But most of the film captures casual performances by lesser known singers and pickers. Blues aficionados might know Jerry “Boogie” McCain (they love him in Europe to this day, he tells us), but I didn’t. He talks about how the blues came from slavery and “from wanting, needing and not having,” and then lays down a very impressive tune called “Potato Patch,” with moaning harmonica accompaniment. (One of my favorite scenes in the film has McCain in this odd little room where he’s collected memorabilia from his career, like a shrine to himself. Harmonicas hang from the low ceiling—those ones are no longer useful because “I killed ’em all!” he says with a laugh.) Another number enjoyed is an acoustic duet between Shepherd and Buddy Flett, sitting on a pair of folding chairs, in front of Leadbelly’s grave in the cemetery in Mooringsport, Louisiana. Ninety-four year-old Henry Townshend still has what it takes to sing “Tears Come Rollin’ Down,” and Etta Baker gives Shepherd a lesson in Piedmont (N.C.) blues style while sitting in her kitchen. She describes it as “a happy sound” compared to the Delta blues, and she’s right. (She and several of the other musicians in the film have since passed away.)
Special kudos to the recording team for the film and CD: Music producer Jerry Harrison, engineer E.T. Thorngren and second engineer Matt Cohen. (This trio has done a lot of work together in recent years that’s made it into the pages of Mix, including the 5.1 remixes of the entire Talking Heads catalog and the recording of a Von Bondies album, among others.) The sound is superb throughout, often in less than perfect recording circumstances, and an added treat is the documentary occasionally shows the intrepid trio at work in different settings. Ted Hall expertly handled the DVD post audio at POP Sound.
All in all, 10 Days Out is an unforgettable piece of work, up there with Terry Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie as an essential work on the blues. Major props to Kenny Wayne Shepherd for getting it out there!