Kenny Wayne Shepherd Brings ‘Trouble Is…’ Anniversary Tour To Charlotte, North Carolina: Live Review

Photo of Kenny Wayne Shepherd by Gregg McCraw.

Blues/rock axe master Kenny Wayne Shepherd says his concerts are all “about the guitar.” 

“This is what the show is about,” confided Shepherd, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and a lauded torchbearer of rock-infused, amplified blues. “It’s obviously about the songs and everybody up here, but the focal point is this instrument.”

The instrument was on full display during a recent stop of Shepherd’s Trouble Is… 25th Anniversary Tour at the Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, with no less than 10 guitar changes during the two-hour, high-impact double set. 

After nearly 30 years performing, to say that Shepherd, 45, is in complete control of his craft is an understatement. A self-taught prodigy, Shepherd received his first plastic guitar when he was a toddler. His grandmother purchased several using S&H Green Stamps and Shepherd has said that he went through them “like candy.”

He was going through guitars with the same vigorous enthusiasm Saturday night for a near capacity crowd at the 1,191-seat theater.   

The tour is a celebration of Shepherd’s sophomore record, Trouble Is… which was released in October 1997 when he was 18. The record was certified Gold in 1998 and Platinum a year later by the RIAA. The record featured four Top 10 hits “Slow Ride,” “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway,” “Everything is Broken” and the No. 1 mainstream rock hit “Blue on Black.” 

Shepherd won two Billboard Music Awards, including Rock Song of the Year, and received his first of five Grammy nominations. He has received a pair of Gibson Guitars’ Orville H. Gibson Guitar awards, the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive award and two Blues Music awards. He’s logged nine No. 1 blues albums. His most recent, Trouble Is… 25, a re-recording of the original, was released in September 2022. 

On tour, the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band includes Shepherd (guitar and vocals); Chris Layton (drums) a founding member of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble; Joe Krown (keyboards), a Hammond endorsed player for his B3 work; Kevin McCormick (bass), a composer and music producer whose credits include Jackson Browne and Melissa Etheridge; and vocalist Noah Hunt, who has been performing in Shepherd’s band since 1996. 

The decision to perform the entire record on tour was easier than sequencing the songs. 

“At first, I thought it would be cool to try and actually do it as you would listen to the album,” Shepherd explained. “It works great for the album, but not for a live concert.”

After trying several different configurations from top to bottom, reverse order, and more, Shepherd tossed the list in favor of what served the music and audience. “I decided I was going to approach it like I was going to reconfigure the set list in whatever way I felt made for the best flow of the show,” he said. 

Shepherd opened the Charlotte show with “Trouble Is,” a blistering instrumental played on a 1961 Fender Stratocaster that set the tone for the rest of the night. 

It’s become a trademark that started out of necessity. Early in his career Shepherd said the opener often didn’t have time for sound check and leading off with an instrumental number gave the sound board operators time to adjust. 

“Back then I wasn’t singing lead vocals so it helped to establish to the audience, the new people in the house, this is what the show is about,” Shepherd said. “It’s about the guitar—and it’s always great for the sound guys.”

During the show, Shepherd swapped instruments for “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” playing a limited edition Fender reclaimed pine guitar named Woody. People were already on their feet. The third song was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” from Dylan’s 1989 Oh Mercy. Shepherd was leaning hard into the groove with Dylan’s poignant, soaring “broken threads and broken strings” resonating with the crowd.

“Chase the Rainbow” with the lyric “I was caught/ I was out of excuses/ but I was not above relearning all the rules” felt timely. Going into the song, Shepherd took the opportunity to tell the audience how surprised he’s been at the response to the tour, which started in February 2022 and had been extended several times including the addition of 2023 dates and an international run in April/May with shows in Paris, Munich and Amsterdam.   

“My goal was always to write what I believed to be timeless music that people would still enjoy decades after it was put out – and that it would still be relevant — and obviously that’s the case and it makes me really proud,” he told Pollstar.  

He told the audience: “It’s the kind of response, every artist wishes they could have.”

Shepherd has a career many artists would envy. According to Pollstar Box Office reports, Shepherd has sold more than 515,000 tickets with a total gross of $15,990,988 over the course of 481 reported dates going back to 1995.   

“Frankly, I think that a lot of that stuff is under reported,” he said responding to the numbers. “We are still building, selling more tickets and playing larger venues than ever before. What’s amazing for me is that we are still expanding our fan base and still building this career.” 

The audience at the Knight Theater was a mix of sing-along, arms-raised diehards and newbies who have only recently discovered Shepherd often via other like-minded artists including Joe Bonamassa.

From the stage, Shepherd described the flow for the evening: “We are going to pretend like we left, but we are coming back,” he told the crowd. “And when we come back, we’re going to play another full set.”

Before the anticipated break, Shepherd finished out the Trouble Is… set with “I Found Love (When I Found You),” which became the wedding song of a generation, “Nothing to do with Love,” and a swampy “Kings Highway,” which provide room for McCormick and Layton to stretch.  

And naturally more guitar swaps including Shepherd’s signature series Fender strat (the company released the series in 2008) and a Monterey Fender strat, which had a limited production run of 200. 

The acoustics in the theater were made for listening, but the music was made for dancing and there were several people on their feet and full-on ovations including an extended one after “True Lies.” 

“I love the song ‘True Lies.’ It’s pretty gritty, a little edgy especially for an 18-year-old writing that song at the time,” said Shepherd, who married Hannah Gibson in 2006 and has six children. “But I don’t know that I would have written that song today. As I’ve gotten older and I have children now and a family, I think about everything I put out there and the way it might be interpreted by them. I try to focus most of my music that I write nowadays on the more positive side instead of writing a bunch of songs about the unfortunate ways relationships can go wrong.” 

Trading leads and solos, the band performed “(Long) Gone” before launching into “I Don’t Live Today,” a Jimi Hendrix cover from Hendrix’s debut with the Experience, and another ovation from the audience.

For “Blue on Black,” Shepherd played his signature, blue acoustic Martin guitar and a black Relic Stratocaster.      

“In the day, when ‘Blue on Black’ was a single, that was the last song of the set before we would walk off for the encore,” Shepherd recalled. “In later years, it actually became the first song of the encore. So, playing before the encore break kinda’ takes us back to the original days of touring and supporting that album and that song.” 

The Knight Theater first set concluded with “Slow Ride,” which was the first cut on Trouble Is… 

The up-tempo number had the audience on their feet going into the encore. 

Accustomed to playing long-form versions of the songs he’s recorded live, Shepherd wanted to balance the first set with an equally impactful second set of songs he’s released since Trouble Is…

“I wanted to pack the second part of the show full of songs that make a statement and really standout and leave the crowd going, ‘Wow,’” he said. “The first part’s a little different. It’s an album listening experience but when you are sitting there watching it unfold in person. But the second part is an explorative experience where each one of those songs for the most part are extended versions. There is a lot of room for improvisation and jamming. 

The band delivered meaty versions of “Woman Like You” and “I Want You” from Shepherd’s 2019 record The Traveler, “Diamonds and Gold from 2017’s Lay It On Down, “Heat of the Sun” from How I Go, which was released in 2011, and a BB King tribute including “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” which was featured on Shepherd’s homage to his heroes, 2014’s Goin’ Home.

Improvisation was a cornerstone of the performance. “You are lowering the walls and opening things up for new and different things to happen,” Shepherd explained. “Sometimes you are working within a structure and sometimes you throw it right out the window and see what happens.”

Not to mention more guitar swaps courtesy of hard-working guitar tech Dustin Sears. Shepherd rounded out the night with a 1960 Les Paul Burst, a custom Crossroads Fender Stratocaster designed by Shepherd and custom built by Todd Krause, and a return of the 1961 Stratocaster and Woody.

“Live musical performance is what I live for,” Shepherd confided. “We make albums so we can play concerts for people. We pride ourselves on our reputation for being a fantastic live band. People hear the records and they love the album and they come to the show, but they say, ‘The show was better than the record.’ And that’s been what it’s all about, touring.”

And the guitar.