The local blues scene may have taken a big hit with the announcement of the bankruptcy of the long-running Monterey Bay Blues Festival, but at least for one night the blues will be alive and kicking at the Golden State Theatre Thursday.
That's when young guitar slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd and five-time Grammy Award-winning veteran bluesman Robert Cray will keep the pulse racing for local blues fans.
Not only that, but a few of the Monterey Peninsula's own blues stalwarts, John "Broadway" Tucker and the Unpaid Bills and Rollin' and Tumblin' will perform this weekend in other local venues to keep that blues flame burning.
And if you talk to Shepherd, he's adamant that the blues is not a dying genre, but a vibrant one that keeps evolving.
"I actually think there's a renewed interest in the music," said Shepherd by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "A lot of people are looking for something real to sink their teeth into and that's what the blues is all about."
While admitting that the big stars of the blues who are still touring — 87-year-old B.B. King and 76-year-old Buddy Guy, for example — are getting are few and far between, Shepherd said there are some young guns ready to take their places.
"If you go on YouTube and do a search of blues guitar, there's no shortage of young kids filming themselves in their bedrooms as they're trying to learn the ropes," said the 35-year-old, who got his first real guitar at age 7 shortly after seeing the great blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn play. "For some people the blues is a stepping stone to other genres of music, but it is a very important foundation for just about all forms of music so I don't think it's ever going to evaporate."
Even after a 20-year career, Shepherd is still a relative youngster in the genre, but feels he and others owe it to the past masters to keep the flame burning.
"The generation that I'm part of, the musicians that came along the same time I did, Jonny Lang, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, there's just a handful there that are doing significant things to bring more attention and awareness to the genre of the blues and continue to keep it relevant."
Although Shepherd himself has had forays into blues fusions that have strayed more into rock territory over the years, he's serious about his blues mission.
"I feel like I've made it a point from the very first day that I formed my band to do everything I could for the genre of the blues," said Shepherd, who was only 17 when his first album "LedBetter Heights" hit the charts. "My mission hasn't changed from Day 1 and that is to do everything I can to leave my mark on music in a positive fashion and affect people's lives in a positive way with my music ... to make my contribution, no matter how large or small, to the genre and to continue to keep it relevant."
Since that first album in 1995, all six of his studio albums have been to No. 1 on the blues charts, with three of them reaching platinum (1 million sold) and one gold (500,000 sold). His live album "Live in Chicago" also hit No. 1 on the blues charts and his first "hit," the blues-rock "Blue on Black," climbed to No. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a rarity for a blues artist.
In his career he has opened for huge arena rock acts such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, the Eagles and Van Halen, but it was his 10-day back-roads trip in 2007 to jam and interview some of blues greats and unsung heroes that he is most proud of. It resulted in the two-time Grammy Award-nominated DVDÐCD project, "10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads" in which he talked to and jammed with idols such as Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Bryan Lee (his first mentor at age 13), B. B. King, blues harp master Jerry "Boogie" McCain, Honeyboy Edwards and members of Muddy Waters' and Howlin' Wolf's great bands, Hubert Sumlin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Pinetop Perkins.
"That was probably one of the most memorable things I've ever done in my career and possibly one of the most significant from a historical point of view," he said. "I got to play with some of my heroes, some I was meeting for the first time. It was important for me, as a musician, to try and show some appreciation for the music that has given me so much inspiration and for the artists that made it possible for me to do my own thing."
A subsequent CD with some of the very artists on that trip, "Live in Chicago," also earned him a Grammy nomination in 2010.
Shepherd, who is married to actor Mel Gibson's daughter, Hannah, and has three children, will be bringing his longtime band with him to Monterey, a band that includes former Stevie Ray Vaughn drummer Chris "Whipper" Layton of Double Trouble fame, vocalist Noah Hunt, bassist Tony Franklin and keyboardist Riley Osbourne.
"It's pretty amazing. It's probably the best band I've ever had," he said, adding that Layton has played with him on and off since his first album in 1995.
Shepherd has been co-headlining this tour with five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray, whose crossover hit "Smokin' Gun" (from his fourth breakthrough 1986 album "Strong Persuader") went to No. 2 on the rock charts and established Cray as a force on the blues scene with his soulful singing style, stinging guitar reminiscent of Albert Collins and his prolific songwriting.
"What's interesting about this tour (with Cray)," said Shepherd, "is that blues is obviously the common thread, but we have two different approaches. It will make for an interesting show."
Mac McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. GO!
What: Robert Cray Band / Kenny Wayne Shepherd in concert
Where: Golden State Theatre,417 Alvarado St., Monterey
When: Thursday, Nov. 15; doors open at 7 p.m., show at 8p.m.
Tickets: $52.50 orchestra, $39.50 balcony, available at box office (10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday) or at TicketMaster.com
Information: 324-4571 or www.goldenstatetheatre.com