Since making his debut as a blues-rock wünderkind back in 1997, Jonny Lang has struggled to fulfill his seemingly enormous potential. As an acolyte of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lang has demonstrated above-average chops when it comes to standard 12-bar blues tropes. In his more recent stints as a harder-edged adult Top 40 act and as a rock gospel singer, he’s been far less convincing. The problem with Lang’s Live at the Ryman album, his sixth overall and first since 2006’s gospel record Turn Around, is that it draws equally from each of those phases of his career without giving any real indication as to where he intends to go from here.
From a purely technical standpoint, there’s no fault to be found in the recording of Lang’s performance at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. His backing band is simply first rate. Tommy Barbarella makes fantastic use of a Hammond organ, and guitarist Sonny Thompson provides gritty counterpoints to some of Lang’s blustery lead guitar licks. The majority of the arrangements mirror those found on Lang’s studio albums, and most of those arrangements work, as the band finds a balance between slick professionalism and the loose-limbed abandon of the best blues music.
Lang proves himself a capable frontman throughout the set. Blessed with a rich, versatile baritone and one of modern music’s most full-bodied falsettos, Lang is in fine voice. Although he often borders on the histrionic on gospel rave-ups like “Turn Around” and “Thankful,” he brings a ragged soulfulness to standout blues-leaning cuts “Give Me Up Again” and “A Quitter Never Wins.” The highlight of the set is a melancholy and surprisingly subdued take on “Breakin’ Me,” a single from 1998’s Wander This World and easily the meatiest, best-written song in his catalogue.
It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that so much of that catalogue is characterized by lackluster material. After five proper studio albums, middling songs like “Red Light” and “Bump in the Road” shouldn’t be the best he has to draw from. Despite an inexplicable Grammy win for Turn Around, his gospel songs are particularly weak. References to the “welfare line” in “Thankful” are kind of embarrassing, while “One Person at a Time” sounds like it should be the theme song to one of American Idol‘s “Idol Gives Back” charity drives. However compelling a live performer Lang may be, there’s only so much he and his band can do with this material.