Jonny Lang remembers having some hesitations the first time he was invited to join the “Experience Hendrix” tour, which brings together at least a dozen top-drawer guitarists to perform the songs of the late, great Jimi Hendrix.
“The first time I was asked to do it, it was kind of, I thought ‘All right, I’ll try it.’ A bunch of guitar players in the same bus and back stage for a month might be a little too much,” Lang said in a recent phone interview. “But it’s actually turned out all right. Everybody’s been really cool. I think everybody really enjoys it. It’s like a summer camp for adults.”
The “Experience Hendrix” tour made its debut in 1998, and it’s gone back out most every year since with a different mix of guitarists on the bill. Lang, obviously, likes it. He has made it such a regular part of his touring routine, he said, that he’s lost count of how many “Experience Hendrix” tours he’s done.
Like previous tours, this spring’s “Experience Hendrix” tour brings together upward of 10 guitarists per night, each performing several Hendrix tunes with an all-star band anchored by bassist Billy Cox, the last surviving member of Hendrix’s bands, the Experience and Band Of Gypsies.
Guitarists playing at least some of the dates on this year’s tour include Lang, Buddy Guy (whose own live-wire playing influenced Hendrix), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Ana Popovic, Keb’ Mo’ and Mato Nanji.
During his performances on the tour, Lang said he tries to find a balance between paying tribute to Hendrix and expressing his own artistry.
“Yeah, it’s weird, there are things in those songs, there are some kind of like melodies that he (Hendrix) played that shouldn’t be altered,” Lang said. “And then there are spots where it would be impossible to play like him.
“So yeah, I just try to be myself and do it the best I can, and then there are parts of those songs that make the song the song,” he said.
“So I try to preserve as much of that as I can and then just honor the songs. I don’t know, it would be easy to just jam, completely jam, and do whatever over everything. But I just try to honor the songs, I guess.”
Like many guitarists (and rock music fans in general), Lang discovered Hendrix fairly young – but perhaps not through the musical channel that has introduced others to the guitar legend.
“I was probably 12 or 13, something like that. And I’m thinking that’s when the first ‘Austin Powers’ (movie) came out,” Lang said, before adjusting his time frame. “Yeah, I think ‘Foxey’ (the song ‘Foxey Lady’) was in it, which is funny because that’s the first time – I had to be younger than that – but ‘Foxey’ came out in that movie, and then ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ too. It was the first time I’d heard either of those songs. Yeah, that was kind of the first time I heard Jimi. I didn’t really think that much of it except wow, that’s such a cool song. I don’t think I had really started playing guitar at that time.”
But unlike many guitarists, Lang didn’t just dive into the Hendrix after that encounter with “Foxey Lady.”
“I never like sat and (studied Hendrix),” he said. “There are some guitarists that I felt compelled to learn exactly what they were doing. For whatever reason, Jimi wasn’t one of those. I think, though, if I knew what I know about him now, then he would have been one of those for me. You know, it’s weird, when you’re young you’re not going to appreciate everything you should. So yeah, I just didn’t fully grasp him at that point.
“I would say when I was like maybe around 18 years old or something, when I started getting way into it,” Lang said.
By that time, Lang was already known far and wide. Now 36, the native of Fargo, North Dakota, saw his career take off when he released his first major label album, the blues-rock flavored “Lie To Me,” in 1997.
The album went platinum and was followed a year later by “Wander This World,” which earned him his first Grammy nomination.
Since then, Lang has slowed the pace of his output, releasing three more well-received studio albums that have seen him move beyond blues-rock to embrace, soul, Motown, funk and pop in his sound.
Lang has started work on a new album and has a bit of an idea of where he’s heading musically.
“It’s starting to take shape,” he said. “I never really have gone into making a record trying to get it to match up to a certain preconception. But with this one I did have in mind that, if anything, I’d maybe like it to be, I don’t know, a little bit more just guitar-centered than the last couple of records, and that might not mean more guitar solos, but maybe more based on riffs, more guitar riff-oriented. So we’ll see what happens with that.”
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.