In recent years, with his exploration of gospel music and his transition from a blues-rock child prodigy to an adult R&B artist, one might say that Jonny Lang has mellowed with age. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it’s a little unusual for someone who has yet to reach the ripe old age of 30.
With Live at the Ryman his sixth album and the first in four years, Lang seems to be a man at the crossroads. Not exactly the shrouded in mystery, Robert Johnson, sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-for-a-hot-lick variety, but certainly Lang has a couple of clear choices. Does he follow the gospel path he embarked upon on 2006’s Grammy-winning Turn Around, or does he turn around and walk down the road of harder blues, returning to where his career began?
Live at the Ryman attempts to make a case for both sides, but what it mostly does is show Lang to be a capable bandleader and a commanding singer (particularly when he’s in his stunning falsetto). The songs are tight and powerful, while the band—including Tommy Barbarella on keys and Sonny Thompson on guitar—is loose and playful.
The band swings into action by opening with “One Person at a Time”, a great rock and roll number all but guaranteed to get the Nashville crowd on its feet. “Bump in the Road” follows, featuring Lang and his backing vocalists stirring up some soul. “Turn Around” shifts the vibe to the more spiritual side before Lang pulls out all stops with an absolutely transcendent version of “A Quitter Never Wins”. His playing on this track alone is enough to remind why he’s considered one of the best guitarists out there these days.
Next, Lang runs through “Red Light”, pausing just long enough to introduce his band. Then things get funky with “Don’t Stop (For Anything)”, which not only boasts some muscular lead guitar, but also brings back the soulful vocal harmonies, which pave the way for another gospel tune, the energetically lovely “Thankful”, in which Lang trades vocals with percussionist Jason Eskridge . “I Am” gets the funk going again, before “Breakin’ Me”, and then an extended arrangement of “Lie to Me”, close the show.
Those of you familiar with Jonny Lang’s live performances, or indeed anyone who was in the audience at the Ryman that night, may be wondering where his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City” has gone. Apparently, though it’s not available on the physical copy of Live at the Ryman, it can be found on specific downloads of the album. The track is definitely worth seeking out, but it’s a mystery why it wasn’t included on all releases. Maybe it was the song’s 12-plus-minute running time? Or perhaps its exclusion was meant to draw attention to other strong points on Live at the Ryman. Whatever the case, Lang’s cover of Tinsley Ellis’ “A Quitter Never Wins” and his signature hit “Lie to Me” are the highlights of this set.
So Live at the Ryman finds Jonny Lang still as yet undecided about his future musical direction. He seems to be content for the moment standing at the intersection of blues and gospel, and that OK. He’s still young yet, after all.