Long before Jonny Lang chose to release a summer 2008 performance from the Ryman Theatre, home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, as his first-ever live CD, he had developed a soft spot for the Nashville venue.“We’ve played there probably five or so times, and every single time it’s been just an incredibly special experience,” Lang explained during a phone interview. “It’s just one of those places, you can’t put your finger on why, but it just is very comfortable to play in. And a lot of that has to do with it being in Nashville, and I think for us anyway, the audience in Nashville is so warm. They’re just very discerning music listeners. So it’s a little intimidating because you know there are so many great musicians in the audience, but at the same time, it’s a very intimate musical experience and it’s awesome. You feel like they’re just really there to enjoy the band. So it’s great.”Lang had been recording shows throughout his tour that summer, hoping that he’d come out with a suitable show for a live CD.But even before he took the stage that night at the Ryman, he already was wanting that particular night to produce some special musical magic.“I was hoping that it would turn out great so we could use it,” Lang said. “It’s such a known venue and it would be a great title for a record, ‘Live At The Ryman.’When the show finished that night, Lang had a good feeling about the concert.“We got off stage and we all went ‘That was a good one,’” Lang recalled. “So I think I knew right after the show was done that that was at least going to be a contender. And it’s hard with the live thing, you know, from the standpoint you can’t go back and fix the stuff you hate. But I think the overall sentiment of that night, it’s just that thing that got captured. You hear the crowd enjoying it and you hear the band having fun and it doesn’t feel forced.”Now with Lang’s “Live at the Ryman” CD in stores, fans can hear 11 songs from that evening’s set and decide if Lang and his band (guitarist/vocalist Sonny Thompson, keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, bassist Jim Anton, rummer Barry Alexander and percussionist/vocalist Jason Eskridge) chose a good performance to preserve for posterity.Chances are they’ll like what they hear. Lang sounds especially inspired as a vocalist, pouring plenty of passion into his performances on songs like “One Person At A Time,” “Turn Around” and the Tinsley Ellis cover “Quitter Never Wins.” Lang and his band, meanwhile are tight throughout the dozen songs and it’s evident that the music is connecting with the Ryman audience.Lang feels “Live at the Ryman” illustrates how his music has evolved over the course of four previous studio CDs.“I think I’m a pretty different musician personally,” he said. “I think the band sounds a lot different. The style is, definitely. It’s more like a tight funky thing now. It used to be more of just a rock/blues type thing. It’s a little bit more about the songs, if you will, now, and a little bit more about the vocals, I think, than the guitars, even though I know there is plenty of guitar on this, probably more than most people care (to hear). Yeah, it’s not so centered on guitar these days, which has just been a natural thing and the way it has just gone.”“Live at the Ryman” leans toward Lang’s most recent musical output. Seven of the 11 songs come from his previous two studio CDs, two track from 2003’s “Long Time Coming,” and five from 2006’s “Turn Around.”The latter album won a Grammy award for best gospel album — an ironic victory considering Lang came up being compared to the late legendary blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.A native of Fargo, North Dakota, Lang was playing guitar in his first band at age 13 and soon he was fronting his own group, Jonny Lang and the Big Bang. After releasing an independent album, “Smokin’,” in 1995, he was signed by A&M Records. Lang was all of 16 when he released his major label debut, “Lie To Me,” in 1997 and saw the title track (which is included on “Live at the Ryman”) become a hit single that propelled him into the forefront of the blues-rock scene.He followed up that album with the 1998 CD, “Wander This World,” but then it would be another five years before he would release new music again.And when the “Long Time Coming” CD arrived in 2003, it reshaped Lang’s image as a blues-rock hotshot. The blues-rock was still there, but several songs, including “Second Guessing” and “I Am” (also included on “Live at the Ryman”), showed that Lang had a talent for soul, Motown and funk.Perhaps more significantly, “Long Time Coming” arrived after major changes in Lang’s life. He married his longtime girlfriend, actress Hayley Johnson and moved from Minneapolis to her home town of Los Angeles.Lang also cleaned up his lifestyle and embraced Christianity. The spiritual influence in Lang’s life was evident in the lyrics of several songs on “Long Time Coming,” particularly on “Save Yourself” and “To Love Again.”That theme carried into “Turn Around,” as its Grammy for best gospel album attests. And with five songs from that album on “Live at the Ryman,” a theme of spirituality and how it can help improve individual lives and the world overall carries into the “Ryman” set.Lang, though, said he didn’t purposely intend for “Live at the Ryman” to have any particular theme.“It’s one of those things, you know, it’s a night-by-night basis, where you just get impressions of where the night is going and kind of where people are at in the audience, how they react to certain things you say or sing,” Lang said. “You kind of tailor it to that as the night goes on. So in that sense, every night is very unique. It’s just that it’s all an inspiration thing for me. If I try to think about it, it just doesn’t work. “But a lot of the things that are being said in the songs, definitely when they were written, are coming from a place of being grateful to God for the things that I have,” he added. “But I don’t want to put that, or expect somebody else to get that out of the songs. So for me, it’s more about just trying to, I guess, to relate to whoever, and let the song mean what it’s going to mean for them. Hopefully the songs can meet somebody where they’re at and help them, whether they’re having a hard time, just try to be a help or a blessing to somebody.”
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