The phrase ‘child star’ engenders ambivalence in many of us, and, with good reason. Child stars often grew up to be troubled adults before the Different Strokes curse. Even Shirley Temple, the perfect child star, was molested as a young teen and endured discomfiture when her audience’s affection for her as a moppet did not follow her into adulthood. Donny and Marie Osmond both acknowledge emotional problems that partly relate to their early stardom. Michael Jackson? Let’s not even go there. So, it is a pleasure to observe a performer who became known young and is still doing fine past turning twenty-one. I had that pleasure observing a performance by Jonny Lang at the Safeway Water Front Blues Festival last week. When I first met Lang he was too young to drive or to go into bars unless he was performing in them.
Since then, he has recorded two albums that sold platinum and been nominated for a Grammy. Now, the boy is a man. Age, self discovery and the purchase of his label by Interscope all played roles in Lang’s new, broader focus.
Jonny Lang, the guitarist who exploded onto the scene at age 15 with the bluesy 1996 CD, Lie To Me, hadn’t put out a CD in five years until Long Time Coming finally arrived in stores in October.
Lang, who plays in Seattle Saturday, nearly released a CD about three years ago. But when his record company said “We don’t hear a single,” it sent Lang down a considerably different path as a songwriter and musician.
A collaboration with musician and songwriter Marti Frederiksen has resulted in an album that is more about Lang than the blues per se.
The new CD brings those influences fully into the forefront. Only two tracks truly fit the blues-rock mold so familiar to Lang’s fans.
Instead, Long Time Coming is dominated by songs that blend rock, soul and funk. A poppier side to Lang’s music also emerges.
“Just like everybody, you have your own original style in you,” said Lang, noting that he had grown up listening to Motown and soul and didn’t discover blues until his early teens. “It was just what was in my heart to do.”
Lang’s precocity was apparent from his first album, Lie to Me. Consider his heartfelt rendition of the lyrics, by Bruce McCabe and David Z,
of the title song.
Lie to me and tell me everything is all right
Lie to me and tell me that you’ll stay here tonight
Tell me that you’ll never leave
Oh, and I’ll just try to make believe
That everything, everything you’re telling me is true
Come on baby won’t you just
Lie to me, go ahead and lie to me
A fifteen-year-old has just begun being lied to. But, Lang clearly knows there is lots more of that to come.
Some reviewers are saying Lang has abandoned the blues.
Lang, who shot to the top of the blues charts in the mid-’90s as a teenager with an old man’s voice and a young man’s guitar showmanship, headlined Gov. Jesse Ventura‘s inaugural ball and toured with B.B. King. But now it’s bye-bye, Jonny Blues Boy; hello, soulful California rocker. He quit drinking, stopped smoking and abandoned the blues. On his third album, Long Time Coming, Lang sounds more like Stevie Wonder than Stevie Ray Vaughan. And he even does a version of a churchy piano ballad set to a rhythm track by — get this — Eminem.
I don’t believe that is true. There were always rock undertones to the songs Lang penned himself. On Long Time Coming they are more pronounced. But, the blues inprint on his glorious guitarmanship is still very much present. A protege of Buddy Guy does not forget. The most memorable song on the CD, “Dying to Live,” works as both blues and rock. So does his cover of “Red Light.” Besides, the 23-year-old has plenty of time to get a full blown case of blues all over again.
One of the highlights of Long Time Coming, foreshadowed on 1988′s Wander This World, is Lang’s ability to cover a soul standard and make it his own. His version of Stevie Wonder‘s “Living for the City” is an astounding blend of guitar and saxophone virtuosity. The message of the song is bolstered by it being sung by someone too young to know the racially segregated world described, but deep enough to recognize the crushing evil being depicted. Partly reared by bluesmen who did know that world intimately, Lang seems to have absorbed the pain and outrage they must have felt. When I experienced the song performed live, in a crowd of thousands, it brought tears to my eyes. The cover of “Living for the City” also brings Lang full circle in a way. A successful former child star is interpreting one of the best former child stars ever.
•Jonny Lang’s website. Hear music from Long Time Coming there.
•A well-run fan site has the lyrics to some of Lang’s songs.
•See videos for Lang’s CDs at VH1.
•Photo from the 2004 Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, by Mac Diva.