Jonny on the Spot
Like a lot of seventeen-year-old boys, Jonny Lang is having trouble waking up. It's almost one o'clock in the afternoon, but Lang sounds groggy, distracted, still lost in dreams. Unlike most seventeen-year-old boys, Lang has a pretty good excuse: He spent the previous evening opening for the Rolling Stones in front of 16,000 fans at a Houston arena.
The Stones gig is merely the latest in a series of triumphs for the blues-guitar wunderkind. Last year he accepted his first movie role, playing a janitor who winds up jamming with Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd in the just-released Blues Brothers 2000. He also toured with B.B. King and recorded a song with Buddy Guy for that blues great's new record. Just this past month his debut album, Lie to Me, went platinum, its sales exceeding one million copies.
As should be evident, young Jonny Lang's life is pretty much perpetually lost in dreams. "It's been a good year," he says in a froggy, still-not-quite awake voice, speaking from his Houston hotel room. "I'd be a fool not to feel real lucky about what's been happening."
The story of Lang's ascent is marked not so much by luck as by astonishing natural talent. The blond teenager first picked up a guitar at the relatively advanced age of thirteen. He was inspired to do so after attending a show by the Bad Medicine Blues Band. "I went to see them in Fargo [North Dakota]," Lang recalls. "It was my first concert and what I remember is watching the lead guitarist [Ted Larsen] and going: 'That. That's what I want to do.'"
Larsen became Lang's first guitar teacher. Lang proved a prodigy, not just as a guitarist but also as a singer. Within months Larsen recruited his star pupil as singer and frontman, renaming his troupe Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang. The group's indie debut, Smokin', sold 25,000 albums and earned Lang a contract with A&M Records.
Lie to Me's commercial success can be traced to its canny blend of electric blues and polished R&B toe-tappers. This is blues with enough pop punch to cross over, as the monster single "Lie to Me" made clear to a legion of skeptical critics ready to write off the kid as a clever marketing gambit. Lang's guitar style is deft but never ostentatious, ranging from his incendiary runs on the Ike Turner classic "Matchbox" to his subdued note-bending on the love ballad "When I Come to You." His voice is supple and smoky, capable of falsetto yearning ("Missing Your Love") and playful exuberance ("Rack 'Em Up").
True, it is difficult to hear Lang deliver the line "I've played the blues for for so long there ain't nothing left for me to do" without emitting a titter. But even the most unyielding purist would be hard-pressed to question the kid's chops.
"I understand that people are going to make a thing of my age," Lang admits. "It's something for them to focus on. The funniest thing is when they try to compare me to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Derek Trucks. You know, these three young blond guitar players. Most people would love to hear me talk bad about those guys. But I wouldn't do that, because they play their asses off." Lang himself has a history of taking it to the limit on-stage. A couple of months ago he played a series of shows while suffering from a 103-degree fever.
That stunt put him out of commission for several weeks. Fortunately, Lang has the support of his family. His father served as his road manager for a time, and his mother just joined him on tour. "I've been locked in a motel room for, like, two years," Lang notes. "So I never got to see her. She's the way coolest mom, and she's been digging the Stones. She loves Mick. She tells me, 'I have so much respect for him being able to run around on-stage like that.'"
Lang grew up in Fargo. A couple of years ago his family moved to Minneapolis. He describes his upbringing as a happy one, with the expected exception of some sibling friction: "I've got three sisters, and the two older ones used to beat the crap out of me. Sisters are way different than brothers. They'll try to dress you up like a girl and put makeup on you, and if you don't submit you get the Bloody 99, which is when they tap their finger down into your chest over and over." Lang chuckles a bit. "They don't do that any more, obviously. They're cool."
The biggest perk to life on the road, Lang says, is the chance to play with his guitar heroes, foremost among them B.B. King. "It's pretty much like opening for God," Lang gushes, "because B.B. is really the granddaddy to everybody. He's been playing for 60 years and he still does 260 shows a year. I mean, that's just unbelievable."
Lang's own tour schedule features more than 200 dates a year, and his pace shows no sign of abating. His backing band, a distinguished cast of Midwestern blues stalwarts, includes guitarist Larsen, keyboardist Bruce McCabe, and drummer Rob Stupka. But he's looking forward to heading back into the studio to record a second album. While he did co-write a couple of the songs on his debut, most of the cuts were covers. That won't be the case with his sophomore effort, which he says will probably confound the expectations of his fans.
"I've been listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder mostly," Lang reports. "Music of My Mind is my favorite. Really, he's my favorite songwriter. And my favorite singer. I've never gotten to perform with him, but my own stuff is really influenced by his sound. In fact, if I put out an album of the stuff I've been writing recently, everybody would go: 'What the hell is that?' It's almost, like, soul-folk."
There is one other little goal that Lang has been quietly pursuing: a high school diploma. "With me being on the road so much, I've had to get, like, you know, a private tutor. But pretty soon here I'm going to be graduating."
Before that, though, he has a string of headlining concert dates (Houston marked his last appearances with the Stones), including a trio of Florida shows, one in West Palm Beach. You know, standard high school senior-year stuff. "I just have to keep telling myself I'm very lucky," Lang says. "The important thing for me right now is to make the right decisions and keep the focus on my music."
Jonny Lang performs Sunday, March 1, at 8:00 p.m. at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach; 561-833-7305. The show is sold out.
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