It is hard to believe that at 36 years old Jonny Lang has already had a successful career for two decades.
Easier to believe when you learn he released his first platinum record at 15"an age when many young people are just beginning to play music. Lie to Me revealed a talent that transcended the crop of blues prodigies floating aroundin the late Nineties. No flashy re-hasher of classic blues licks, even at that earlyage Lang was a full-blown artist with a style of his own. Also, setting Lang apartfrom the wunderkind crowd was a 15-year-old voice that sounded like aweathered soul shouter. Actual life experience was yet to come, and has beensubsequently chronicled in a series of five uniformly excellent recordings. "I gotmarried, had kids, and that arc has been recorded on albums along the way," says Lang. "There is a lot of personal history in there, and also some things thatrelate to world events."
What began as a bluesy sound, influenced by electric pioneers like Albert Collins,
B. B. King, and Buddy Guy, evolved over those recordings into a modern R&Bstyle closer to Stevie Wonder and contemporary gospel music. Lang"s distinctive,blues-inflected licks appeared on every album, but became one element in a seaof passionately sung and tightly arranged songs.
Signs is not merely a return the artist"s guitar-based beginnings, but anembodiment of an even more elemental sound. Beyond focusing attention on hissoloing prowess, it is about recapturing the spirit of the early blues, where theguitar was front and center, fairly leaping out of the speakers. "A lot of my earlier influences have been coming to the surface, like Robert Johnson, and Howlin"Wolf," he reports. "I have been appreciating how raw and unrefined that stuff is. Ihad an itch to emulate some of that and I think it shows in the songs. Still, I letthe writing be what it was and that was sometimes not necessarily the blues."
In this simpler spirit, Lang, Drew Ramsey, and Shannon Sanders convened in aLos Angeles studio with some melodic and arranging ideas and proceeded tocrank out a dozen basic tracks in a few days. With a bit of overdubbing andfurther recording in L.A. and Nashville, and some further help from Dwan Hill,Dennis Dodd and Josh Kelley, Signs was done. The record, which features funk, rock, and blues elements, is held together by Lang"s distinctive playing andsinging, and the lyrics, which center on themes of embattlement and self-empowerment. "Some of the songs are autobiographical, but not usually in aliteral way," Lang explains. "The main goal is for folks to be able to relate to whatI went through. If I can"t make it work using just my personal experience, I use myimagination to fill in blanks."
Starting off the record with a juke joint stomp, "Make It Move" is the singer"s storyabout going to the mountain rather than waiting for it to come to you. "There have been times in my life where I thought something would take care of itself, when Ishould have put some effort forth to help it happen," says Lang. "Being proactivehas been a weak spot for me, and the song is about doing your part to get thingsmoving."
Fueled by some evil guitar sounds, "Snakes" turns the well-known warning about"snakes in the grass" into a poetic tale of a young man dealing with hubris andtemptation. "It is mostly about the mistakes I made through not approaching lifewith humility, and the things I was susceptible to that distracted me," says Lang."You are overconfident, thinking you are ready for whatever the world will throwat you, but have no idea some things are affecting you until much later in life."
The anthemic "Last Man Standing" started with a hook Drew Ramsey brought tothe recording date. "We built the song around that premise," Lang explains."When I was coming up with lyrics, it was personal, but I don"t want to analyze ittoo much. I want it to be whatever it is going to be for the listener. That songcould be applied to any situation in which you feel like you are struggling."
Lang breaks out the slide for the title song, "Signs," which extends outward frompersonal stories into the dramatic events of today"s world. "I try to disregardpolitics as much as I can, but it seems like every day when you wake up there issomething else crazy going on"not normal crazy, but more like movie scriptcrazy," he says.
The rampaging guitars and driving groove of "Bitter End" reflect Lang"s frustrationwith a seemingly endless cycle of history: "Why tear down a wall to build it upagain." But he brings us back up with the lilting affirmation of "Stronger Together," and the funky exhortation to step "Into the Light."
A stunning guitar solo marks the Josh Kelly produced "Bring Me Back Home."
"Josh and I cut six or seven songs together and had a blast doing it," Lang says."I am saving the other ones for who knows what, but I definitely wanted that oneto be on this record."
Since the release of his debut album, Grammy Award winning Jonny Lang hasbuilt a reputation as one of the best live performers and guitarists of hisgeneration. The path Lang has been on has brought him the opportunity tosupport or perform with some of the most respected legends in music. He hasshared the stage with everyone from The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Aerosmithand Buddy Guy, who he continues to tour with today.
Fans who discovered Jonny Lang through his searing instrumental work will revelin the huge guitar tones and go for broke solos on Signs, while those who have appreciated his growth as an honest and passionate songwriter will find that honesty and passion unabated. Though he long ago left blues purism behind,Lang has never abandoned its spirit of universal catharsis through the relating ofpersonal trials. Signs reaffirms his commitment to the blues and the guitar withoutsacrificing the modern approach that has made him such a singular artist.