Music fans who tend to dismiss guitarist and singer-songwriter Jonny Lang as a blues-rock prodigy who had his heyday as a teenage hot-shot in the late 1990s would surely be surprised by the rich musical texture, spirited lyricism and genuine soulfulness of his latest album, "Fight For My Soul."
If you go
What: Buddy Guy & Jonny Lang
When: Friday, doors open at 7 p.m. with the show starting at 8 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive
For more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
As Lang's first studio effort since his Grammy Award-winning collection "Turn Around" in 2007, the gospel-tinged, modernized mix of rock and soul on "Fight For My Soul" stands out as a major step ahead as a maturing, independent-minded songwriter and bandleader.
"I felt like I'd started coming into my own, songwriting-wise," Lang says of the three years he and studio producer Tommy Sims put into the "Fight For My Soul" sessions. "I want to continue to grow in that area because it's become more and more important to me."
In the seven years since releasing "Turn Around," Lang settled down a bit, taking time off from touring, starting a family and exploring new spiritual and philosophical ideas.
In his teen and early adult years, he displayed amazing technique and a penchant for fiery electric blues, blazing solos and gutsy rock 'n' roll. Now in his early 30s, Lang demonstrates a new sense of maturity, both with a deepened respect for songcraft and a more restrained approach to electric guitar work.
"Coming from the bluesy early material, I was kind of afraid to fully let go of the reins in a way until I made this new record," Lang says of "Fight For My Soul." "But I asked myself, 'Why should my sense of creativity not grow and change as I mature and get older?' If you had a conversation with me when I was 16 and had a conversation with me today at 32, you'd feel like you were talking to a different person."
Lang made a splash as a top-notch soloist and jammer in the contemporary blues scene in the 1990s. A native of Fargo, N.D., he moved to Minneapolis around the time he was proficient enough to record and collaborate with pro players.
Lang released his solo debut album titled "Lie to Me" when he was 15. He led a group called Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Bang, releasing a collection titled "Smokin' " in 1995.
After a major-label bidding war, Lang signed to A&M Records in 1996.
The 1998 riff-filled "Wander This World" earned high praise from fans and critics as a solid and enthusiastic blues-rock collection.
By the time 2003's "Long Time Coming" came together, Lang had developed a slick, heavy-rock style that veered away from traditional electric blues.
The aptly titled "Turn Around" demonstrated a burgeoning sense of songcraft that relied less on formulaic song arrangements and popular music and more on Lang's natural instincts as a singer and writer.
"My perspective and my understanding of the rules of songwriting have changed over the years," Lang says. "It's become less of an expected outcome when I start writing a song. I don't go into it with a traditional verse/chorus arrangement. It's not something that you're entirely in control of. You can't really shape your own songs in an exact way. They have to happen naturally."
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was easy to compare Lang's hot licks and soloing style to those of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and other greats.
By the time he started working on material for "Fight For My Soul," he'd stepped away from the legendary guitar god gallery and fixed on a surprisingly different type of muse.
"The artist who changed me the most and kind of turned my direction on its head was James Taylor," Lang says with a laugh. "I didn't expect it. I'd always heard him growing up, and my parents liked his music, but I was always neither here nor there with James Taylor until about 2002 or so when I heard his 'Hourglass' album. It destroyed me. It was all I listened to for about a year.
"I got really into all of James Taylor's stuff," he adds. "He became one of my top favorite singers of all time, right next to Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Every time I hear it, I find something else that I missed. He was such a deep artist. I desired to incorporate that songwriting essence that I loved about him."
New kind of sound
Inspired by positive life experiences and an expanded perspective and appreciation for melodic folk, pop and roots-rock styles, Lang started making demos and sketching new song ideas for "Fight For My Soul" in 2010. Veteran producer Tommy Sims toiled alongside Lang at every step.
Sims had already worked in the studio with a variety of pop, country and rock artists, from Amy Grant and Garth Brooks to Bruce Springsteen and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Sims also co-wrote Eric Clapton's Grammy-winning hit "Change the World."
For Lang, hooking up with a producer who truly understood what he was trying to do and say, a musical partner who was on the same page with a positive chemistry, was key to making the new album.
"Tommy is a master of sewing things together and putting the right touches here and there," Lang says. "He deserves half of the credit for how this record turned out. He was there all the way, nudging it and guiding it along. We're great friends, which helps, and he totally knows me. We're definitely on the same page."
Most of Lang's current stage band - guitarist Akil Thompson, keyboardist Dwan Hill, drummer Barry Alexander and vocalist Jessica Langseth - contributed to the new tracks, as well.
According to Lang, his team's patience and effort allowed him to develop and fine-tune his song ideas with little pressure.
"I had a lot of time to write for this last record," he says. "I went through some different phases and bits of inspiration. I came up with some of the songs on 'Fight for My Soul' almost seven years ago. Other songs came together at the very end."
In a way, Lang had to challenge his own guitar technique and style to accommodate the new songs. He stepped back from some of his old habits, playing more sparingly and tastefully as a rhythm player than a soloist.
"There was really no conscience effort to adjust or alter things harmonically, even though the songs are harmonically a lot different from my older material," Lang says. "I love how things turn out when you're in a pressure situation and just press record and are forced to come up with something.
"Perhaps it has changed my style," he adds. "I've maybe made more room within my guitar soloing for whatever differences there are in the new songs."
Lang didn't worry about how old-school fans and blues purists might react to his new stuff. He simply wanted to create an original album that came together without any tricks, distractions or compromises.
"Most people like for their expectations to be met, I think," he says. "Maybe it's something primal. But when it comes to music and art, it helps to let go of that. You have to try. You end up enjoying things much more."
Back to Lowcountry
The last time Lang performed in the Lowcountry was in the spring of 2012 when bassist Billy Cox, a veteran bassist from the Band of Gypsys and Jimi Hendrix Experience, led the Experience Hendrix tribute showcase to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The all-star roster of master guitarists and musicians included some seasoned veterans and young upstarts.
During the performance, Lang shared the stage with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, trading licks, solos and verses on renditions of "All Along the Watchtower, "Fire," "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Like a Rolling Stone."
The set was one of several highlights of the night.
On this trip to the PAC on Friday night, Lang and his band plan to play much of "Fight For My Soul," along with a few old fan faves and possibly a few deep cuts.
Sharing the bill with blues legend Buddy Guy is something Lang and his gang have enjoyed many times before.
Lang and his band will open the show Friday with Guy's ensemble closing things out.
"Nobody wants Buddy to open for them because he'd set a bomb off in the place and there'd be nothing left," Lang laughs. "There's no universe in which Jonny Lang could headline behind Buddy Guy. We'll go first in North Charleston. Depending on the night, there could possibly be a jam together or something like that. We'll see.
"Buddy and I have had a professional affiliation for years, but we've become good friends over the years, too," Lang adds. "We've toured together over the years. He's just a wonderful person; such a great guy. He's always supported young musicians like myself. He never treated me like a kid, and he made me feel like one of the guys. To feel respected by somebody like Buddy Guy, you can imagine what that does to a young player's self-esteem. I'm really grateful to him for how he's treated me and encouraged me."