December 7, 2022

There are many possible reasons for wanting to re-record an album from scratch. It could be that with the passage of time, the band just feels they could do it better now – especially if an early album was recorded in a hurry, on a shoestring budget, or with minimal equipment. Diamond Head re-recorded their debut album a couple of years ago, and it’s harder, heavier and unarguably better, although the personnel has changed in the intervening 25 years. Mike Oldfield was chafing at the bit for 30 years to redo Tubular Bells, and again, the 2003 re-record is superior in almost every particular. The embryonic Praying Mantis and Iron Maiden both had songs on the 1980 Metal For Muthas compilation, but these were re-recorded for their respective debut LPs. In all cases though, the original usually claims the fans’ allegiance as, whatever their deficiencies, these are the versions that took their attention in the first place, that made names and launched careers.

Louisiana bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd has now joined the clan by re-recording his band’s second album, Trouble Is…, although it’s not out of any dissatisfaction with the original product. The hot-shot young guitarist had exploded on to the scene with his first album Leadbetter Heights in 1995, playing to packed stadiums as support on Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour in 1994 while still only 17. That tour is when he first came to my attention, stomping the stage at Wembley in cowboy boots, hair flailing, guitar screaming. Trouble Is… is a storming statement of intent, and it’s clear no corners were cut, the production is excellent, and guest starts included no less than three members of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, with harmonica legend James Cotton blowing up a storm on the ZZ Top-alike rocker (Long) Gone. Nevertheless, 2022 marks the album’s 25th anniversary, and for this celebratory re-recording, named Trouble Is… 25, Shepherd has assembled pretty much all of the original cast, with the exception of the now-retired bassist Tommy Shannon, who is replaced by Shepherd’s regular bassist Kevin McCormick, and of course the deceased Cotton. He is using the same guitar and amp setup as far as possible, and has even dug out all his old foot pedals.

Original album cover from 1997

The idea was not to create a note-for-note reproduction of the originals, as the songs have tended to evolve over a quarter-century of gigging, but to re-create the original vibe and chemistry as far as possible. In fact though, it is a very faithful self-cover for the most part, as demonstrated by the storming opener Slow Ride, and the riffy, chugging, True Lies. Listening to old and new back-to-back reveals hardly any variance at all; the new recordings are a little louder and punchier in the mid-range, which make it noticeable that the kick drum is lacking in volume on the original; I would say the opening song on the new set is possibly marginally less fiery in the delivery, but only a devoted fan of the original would even spot the difference, and such a fan would probably opt for the original in any event. The acoustic-based country ballad Blue On Black and the rock’n’roll Bob Dylan cover Everything Is Broken are more similar still, although the new version of the Dylan cover builds to more of a climax and crash ending on the new record. The Hendrix cover I Don’t Live Today was more of a conscious homage to Jimi back in ’97, being virtually an impersonation both in the vocals and the psychedelic, panning guitar; the new one is still a brilliant hippy wig-out, but less self-consciously Jimi I would say. But it’s clear by now, that it won’t be possible to point at either recording and say it’s noticeably better than the other; it’s more impressive to see just how consistent the guys have been over the 25 years.

The track lengths are identical within a hair’s breadth, apart from one – the steamrolling Somehow, Somewhere, Someway gains a full minute, due to an extended playout guitar solo, and it’s none the worse for that.

As an extra inducement to stump up for the new recording, there is a bonus cover of Bob Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man – the band had recorded this for the original Trouble Is… in 1997, but didn’t use it in the end, opting for a different Dylan Cover, Everything Is Broken, instead. That was a good move, as Thin Man is a lyrically very strange song in the first place, as well as being pretty long at 6½ minutes, and not an immediately obvious fit for Shepherd’s band. It works well enough as a bonus track though, especially with its Robin Trower-esque lead guitar work, and completist collectors will no doubt be glad to have it. Shepherd says the new Thin Man recording is, again, faithful to the cover they did in ’97, which remains unreleased.

So what’s the verdict? Well, it’s a great album of rocking blues, and that’s the bottom line. Personally, I would opt for the new one; the boosted mid-range gives it a little more depth, but I wouldn’t criticise anyone for preferring the original, especially die-hard fans. Excellent musicians aside, it still revolves around Kenny’s wizard guitar playing; the fact that he launched this opus when emerging from his teens is an enviable achievement, and it’s worth celebrating.