Jonny Lang -Blues young at Heart
6/12/99 Warfield Theatre
........Blues prodigy Jonny Lang still can't even order a drink without getting carded at the Warfield Theatre. If you're going by appearances, Lang, now 18, looks nothing like a blues man - skinny, white and pretty. But Lang's second album - "Wander This World," released in October - has made him seem like less of a novelty act than when he was on the cusp of 16 and promoting his first major-label release, "Lie to Me." That's due, in part, to what critics say is a maturing of Lang's guitar style - which had already prompted Guitar Magazine to gush that he was "the new great hope for blues-based guitar rock." It's plain maturity, too.
......The 15-year-old Lang wailed, "Lie to me, and tell me that you'll stay here tonight." Where? In his bunk bed? Lyrics from the same album, "Good morning, little schoolgirl, can I go home with you?" prompted a Rolling Stone interviewer to tell Lang: "But you can't sing like a dirty old man yet - unless we're talking about an eleven-year-old schoolgirl or something." But like Alanis Morissette, Lang just dives in, plays it straight and works hard, without a trace of irony, graciously welcoming the fans who buy into his act, maintaining appropriate humility in the company of blues journeymen like B.B. King, and dismissing the scoffers who find him preposterous. "For me, it's like a big myth, I think, that you have to lead this huge life of misery and be down on your luck constantly to play the kind of music that I play," Lang said on MTV, in what has become for him a routine defense against the notion of dues-paying for blues artists. His attitude has paid off. "Lie to Me" went platinum, and "Wander This World" is selling briskly. The latter finds Lang with a back-of-the-throat howler sometimes reminiscent of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, expanding from straight blues into R&B, ballads and rock - including "I Am," a funky tune originally penned by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. (Also from Minnesota, like Ex-Prince, Lang played at Jesse Ventura's inauguration as governor.) He's doing something no one else has in blues : packing big venues and bringing in young fans who might otherwise be asking for "B.B. or ?"
........As expected, plenty of fans younger than B.B King's liver showed up to see the 18-year-old blues-guitar wonder, at the Warfield in San Francisco ,but a good deal of gray hair flecked the adoring audience, too. Folk-singer Patty Griffin gave a quality opener that kept seats filled before the main act. Her smoky voice carried hints of Janis Joplin in the lower ranges. And if her trippy, Joe Cockerlike motions were slightly distracting, they were the real warm-up for Lang. Watching Jonny Lang live is true cognitive dissonance. What you hear: a big, harsh voice and demonic guitar work. What you see: A gangly white boy who looks like he could benefit from a few years of hard time. Lang hit each chord with comically overwrought facial grimaces that sometimes resembled MTV's Butt-head and at others looked like a case of painful constipation. Near as I could figure, they were the most extreme version he could muster of the Getting-Into-It Face that's a staple in blues. Backed by a four-piece band, Lang kicked off his 90-minute set with "Still Rainin'," the first song on his sophomore album "Wander This World." He wailed through material from that and his debut CD, "Lie to Me," with a vocal intensity that could have benefited from a less-is-more approach on slower numbers like "Leaving to Stay." If Lang's expressions were a distraction, his furious guitar work reigned me back in. I may have found a weak spot for really good guitar players , and there was no doubting his skill. Lang and rhythm guitarist Paul Diethelm traded licks during a blistering call-and-response that brought the fans to their feet, and keyed up more than just teen girls finally to spill into the aisles and crowd the stage by the time he closed with the catchy title track from "Lie to Me."
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