Few songwriters have Bill Callahan’s eye for wry detail: “Like motel curtains, we never really met,” the singer-songwriter declares on “Angela,” using his weather-worn baritone. On his first studio album in five years—an unusually long gap for Callahan—one of the enduring voices in alternative music continues to pare back the extraneous in his sound. A noise musician and mighty mumbler when he broke through under the moniker of Smog in the early 1990s, Callahan now favors minimal indie-folk brushstrokes such as a guitar strum, a sighing pedal steel guitar, or simply barely audible room ambience. The 20 songs here insinuate themselves with bittersweet melodies and a conversational tone, and they’re a strong reminder of Callahan's dry sense of humor: “The panic room is now a nursery,” the recently married new father sings on “Son of the Sea.” But if he’s comparatively settled in life, Callahan still knows how to hit an unnerving note with a matter-of-fact ease.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd arrived on the scene as a blues guitar hero at 18 to an overload of media hoopla and pressure. At 40, he has evolved from the blues-guitar-slinger ghetto and become a mature musician whose wide-angle vision embraces American roots music – blues, rock, country, and soul/R&B – as an inseparable whole. While it's true that most of his albums have charted, his last two, Goin’ Home and Lay It on Down, have done better than all the others, placing well inside the Top 40. The Traveler is a direct aesthetic follow-up to Lay It on Down. Co-produced once more with Marshall Altman, it utilizes the same band (including uber-drummer Chris Layton and singer Noah Hunt). Recorded in Los Angeles over ten days, it offers eight new originals and two excellent covers.
First off, Kenny Wayne Shepherd was 33 years old at the release of this album, so he’s not a kid playing hot guitar anymore, he’s a grown man doing it. And he does play a hot lead guitar – that, in a nutshell, is what he does. But over the years he’s also learned that the blues isn’t just about blazing lead licks, it’s also about letting the song say its say – and on Live! In Chicago he does that. This is a concert full of songs and not just a bunch of guitar leads broken up by someone singing for a bit. Shepherd is also fully aware of the history of the blues and he honors some of his heroes here by playing with blues legends like Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bryan Lee and Buddy Flett and he doesn’t step all over them with his guitar playing – he supports them. The concert grew out of the tour Shepherd put together in support of 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads project, a DVD/CD documentary that featured Shepherd traveling around the country on a ten day trip interviewing and playing with icons from the blues world, including the surviving members of Muddy Waters' and Howlin' Wolf's bands, making this show, recorded at the House of Blues in Chicago, a kind of culmination.