I interviewed him when he was 16. He was polite, but clearly uncomfortable. He was monosyllabic, noncommittal, shy. Onstage a month later, however, as the opening act for Aerosmith at the Classic Amphitheatre, he was utterly in command. His encore of Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic," the feeling and aggression he poured into it, left an impression.
Eight years later, at Innsbrook as a headliner, he was electrifying, bristling with soul and energy, playing mostly original material that went from rock to blues to funk to a Celtic-flavored ballad. Toward the end, I heard a familiar chord, and to my disbelief he launched into Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City." It was fabulous. He ripped into it with everything he had. His vocals and guitar lead were passionate, soulful and right on the mark.
Last week, reached by phone in Louisiana, Lang commented on that song: "Doing a cover, especially Stevie Wonder, is risky, and I don't even know if I do it justice." Turns out Wonder himself had no such doubts. After hearing Lang's version, Wonder invited Lang to perform it live at Wonder's induction into the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame. Lang recalled the moment: "Oh, man well, first of all, when they told me, I just did not even believe it. He's been a huge influence on me musically. It was the most random, out-of-left-field thing. And it was the most nerve-racking thing I've ever done! I mean he was sitting right there, and there were all these other great songwriters there as well. I still can't believe it. It was awesome."
Lang's newest record represents another change in direction. While his favorite guitar players B.B. King and Albert Collins don't hint at it, his favorite vocalists Wonder, Donny Hathaway and gospel singer John P. Kee shed some light. "Turn Around" is a soul and gospel record with plenty of funk. Lang, now open and affable in interviews, said this record speaks of who he really is. "I'm a Christian," he said. "I believe in Jesus. It's probably the most important thing in my life. I'm just so grateful to him, and I just want to find a way, more and more, to give the credit to him. That's the thing that comes out most easily for me. On this record I've gotten to say a little more directly what's in my heart." He paused, and then added, "But we're still doing 'Livin' for the City.'" S
Jonny Lang plays Innsbrook After Hours Wednesday, Aug. 16. Phil Keaggy opens the show at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10-$30. For more information, visit www.innsbrookafterhours.com or call 423-6589. Ticketscan be purchased at www.ticketstobuy.com or 794-6700.