On a late Tuesday morning in New York City, Stephen Stills digs into an egg white omelet in the Tea Room of the tony Carlyle Hotel and talks about how playing with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the modern blues guitar star who also happens to be 32 years his junior, is having an effect on how he approaches making music.
"I used to try to make more noise," he says. "I would play a lot dirtier, and I'd try to make smaller amps sound like a stack of Marshalls. With Kenny, I'm trying to concentrate more on composing on the guitar instead of just ripping. He's changing my playing, and I'm changing his – that's the way a band should work."
Likewise, Shepherd, seated across from Stills and nursing a breakfast smoothie, says that trading licks with the veteran guitar legend is causing him to re-evaluate his own playing style. "Playing with Stephen is so inspiring on a lot of levels," he says. "One of the big things is how he's making me look at my rhythm playing, especially when we're singing. He knows the pockets to fill, so that's what I'm looking for. There's a nice give and take that we've established. There's no egos in this band."
"That's right – we already know we're great," Stills says, smiling broadly, then quickly adding, "No, wait… that's the other band."
Both men break up at Stills' sly reference to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Barry Goldberg, the former Electric Flag keyboardist who has teamed with Stills and Shepherd to form the blues band The Rides, shakes his head and smiles. "You never know when Stephen's joking," he says. "And when you think he's joking, he's actually being serious."
On the heels of the release of their debut album, Can't Get Enough, Stills, Shepherd and Goldberg are in town to kick off a month-long tour at the city's hip Times Square hangout, the Iridium Jazz Club. We talked with the three men about the new LP, what Stills thought about working with a former Talking Head, how a couple of blues vets tackled The Stooges – and, of course, things always have a way of ending with Hendrix.
So the idea here was to revisit Super Session [the 1968 album on which both Stills and Goldberg both performed] in some fashion.
Shepherd: "That was the original concept that was presented to me. Not that we were going to redo Super Session, but 'inspired by' sounds about right. We were inspired by the Super Session record. Both Barry and Stephen were on that, and it featured another great guitar player –
Shepherd: "Exactly. But the difference is, we wanted to get together and write songs for this record; those guys didn't write songs together for Super Session. This evolved into a different thing. And the chemistry was really right between us – it was all pretty effortless. Making the record, we began to realize that we were forming a band, and the project we were involved with was our debut record.
[To Stephen and Barry] Now, you guys didn't actually play together on Super Session, did you?
Stills: "No, we missed each other by a day. Bloomfield and Barry started it out, and Al Kooper was the producer. Bloomer lasted about a day out in Los Angeles. I don't know what the problem was; Mike being from Chicago – that's just as intense. Anyway, he ran away. So I got a call out at my little house in Topanga from Al Kooper: 'Stephen, we're doing this little blues record – you wanna come?' I said, 'OK, Al, how long was your list, and how far down was I?' And Al went, 'Not long, and you're exactly near the top!' [Laughs]
"With this record, what happened was, my manager, Elliot Roberts, and a record executive were talking about Super Session, what a marvelous record it was and how it was made quickly and cheaply. Of course, the secret to that is having good players, simple songs and good, one-take recordings."
[To Stephen and Barry] How aware were the two of you of Kenny before you got together?
Stills: "When we made Super Session, I think Kenny was still a gleam in his parents' eyes. [Shepherd laughs] Was his dad even out of high school? [Laughs] No, but I've known Kenny for about 10 years. We have a mutual friend, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. He brings this gang from LA to games, and one of them is Kenny Wayne, the gunslinger guitarist. And, I must say, he's probably the most well-mannered, nicest and considerate guy I've ever met in rock 'n' roll, just a really sweet guy, and not the type who would come up and put out his hand and introduce himself – he's shy.
"So Elliot calls me and says, 'I've got a guitar player for the record you're doing with Barry: Kenny Wayne Shepherd.' And I said, 'Who?' Because to me, he was the cool blond kid, the nice guy who didn't say much. 'No, Kenny Wayne Shepherd,' he said. 'He says you know him. You've worked together' – which is true; we did some jam bands and some things. But I was having a senior moment. I'm playing this casino, and I happened to go out into the parking lot, and I saw this eight-story picture of Kenny – 'This weekend, Kenny Wayne Shepherd' – and I said to Elliot, 'Oh. That'll be fine.'" [Laughs]
Now, Barry, you've played with many of the greats. What do you like about what Kenny does?
Goldberg: "His fire, his passion, his choice of notes – all of that is what gets it for me. Kenny is never off – he's always on. Stephen and Kenny are two of the best. I'm not just saying that, either. Guitar players inspire the keyboard player."
Stephen, you've played a lot of different guitars during your career, but historically you've favored big, hollow-body electrics like Gretsches. Given that Kenny's a big Strat guy, which kinds of models did you use on this album to mesh with his sound?
Stills: "You know, I've been surrounded by folk singers and the like for 40 years, so I gravitated to the big Gretsches. I became a Strat player about 20 years ago. After the Gretsches, the Super 400s, the 335s – all of these jazzy guitars – and the acoustics and what have you, the Strat became home. That, to me, is when I got really good on guitar."
The two of you mixed it up on Strats?
Shepherd: "For the most part, yeah."
Stills: "Plus, when you're traveling with the gang to a football game, the Stratocaster is a hell of a lot easier to carry."
Shepherd: "It was a lot of Strats, but Stephen did bring in some incredible guitars, and I did, too. But the majority of the instruments were Strats. He played a Gretsch on one or two songs; he played his original 1958 Gibson Flying V. There's a couple of things where you have some different guitars being used."
"The original was sort of primal," Shepherd says of The Stooges' Search And Destroy. "We did more of a Keith Richards kind of thing to it." © Eleanor Stills
Kenny, you've worked with Jerry Harrison quite a bit, but Stephen and Barry, he was new to you. What did you think of him?
Stills: "Way too much talking. [Laughs] But he did bring us a great idea for us to do the Iggy Pop song. That was Jerry's idea, but the elderly persons' council here was kind of resistant because that one came from a generation that hated anyone from the '60s."
But wait… Iggy Pop and The Stooges came out of the '60s, too.
Stills: "They may have been contemporaries, but they hated everyone before them. They bashed people, and they had the audience that spit at the stage and whatever. Anyway, the chords to that song meshed together well. And my daughter, Eleanor, and Elliot Roberts' son were in the studio, and she was listening to me saying something about the song, and she said, 'Dad, shut up. This is one of my favorite songs. Cut it.' So, being a wise man, when you hear words of authority from a woman, you obey. [Laughs] Actually, it's one of the best cuts on the record. It's in a weird key, so I didn't take a solo, but when we do it live, I'll find a way to get a little piece out of it."
Shepherd: "Suffice to say that the backgrounds of these guys and The Stooges is way different. Their mindsets and what they wanted to portray in songs were not the same at all. For me, Search And Destroy isn't something I would have thought to record, either."
Stills: "But you sure sang the hell out of it. You gave it swagger."
Shepherd: "Thank you. But you know, Jerry, from the time I started working with him, he'd suggest songs for me to cover that seemed out of left field. I'm a blues guy, you know? He knows what he's doing. He's really good at thinking outside the box, and he hears ways that the band can make things their own. The original was sort of primal, and we did more of a Keith Richards kind of thing to it."
Speaking of primal, I love the nasty guitar soloing on Mississippi Road House. What are you guys using on that?
Shepherd: "I used an original Fuzz Face from the 1960s. It's an aggressive sound, for sure."
Stills: "I have a collection of amps that are older than us. I have a Bassman with four 10s. These things have hair – that's how old they are. [Laughs] Beyond that, I use the volume knob, too, like Jeff Beck. I've got some boxes, but I prefer to make sounds with the amps and the volume knob."
"I just thought that Rockin' In The Free World was a very appropriate song for the times," says Stills, pictured in the studio beside Shepherd. © Eleanor Stills
Of all the covers that you guys do, I was especially struck by Rockin' In The Free World. Stephen, did you have any hesitation at doing a Neil Young song, or did you feel, because of your association with him, that you were the perfect guy to do it?
Stills: "You know, we were doing three songs a day, and I simply said, 'Let's try this.' I had played it on tour with Neil once, and I thought that we might get a cool version with Kenny and Barry. And we killed it, too! I just thought that Rockin' In The Free World was a very appropriate song for the times, that's all."
Stephen, you guys also do a new take on your song Word Game. Why did you want to revisit it?
Stills: "You know, the whole point to doing a cover is to treat it like a new song and make it yours. It was a lot of fun covering myself because I didn't have to think too hard about it."
Shepherd: "Originally, I didn't even know that the song had appeared on one of Stephen's albums. I thought it was a song that he had written and performed live but never actually recorded. I found the original that was on Stephen Stills 2, and it was just him and an acoustic guitar, so the cool thing for us was to turn it into a band song. In that way, we had a real clean slate for how to approach it."
Kenny, let me ask you, not that Stephen and Barry are 100 years old, but they are from a different generation than you. What do you get from playing with them?
Shepherd: "I'm inspired by them. I've always looked to people from earlier generations for guidance. I gravitate towards the guy with the most experience or the smartest guy in the room. That's the guy who's going to make me better at what I do."
Stills: "But I'm the same way. I want to play with people who are better than me. I'm having dinner tonight with Wynton Marsalis."
Shepherd: "If you look at my career, I've always played with guys who were older than me. When I started playing on stage, I was 13 years old. It's natural for me to do this kind of thing."
So, Barry, Stephen has played with Jimi Hendrix, and Kenny has played Hendrix's guitar – do you have a connection to Jimi?
Goldberg: "I do. In fact, I played with him back in the day, when he was Jimmy James, at the Café Wha? in New York. He would come in and sit in with the band for a whole week. He called me 'Piano Man.' We did Hey Joe, and I could immediately tell that he was a freak and one of the greatest. On the last night we played, Chas Chandler and Eric Burden were in the audience, and that's when they discovered him and brought him to England and made him a star. Jimi was a wonderful guy."
Stills: "That he was. We were both ex-pats, and he'd come and find me just to talk. He wanted to get away from the people who were basically working him. We'd talk philosophy all night. He was the nicest guy in the world."