On Jonny Lang’s carefully sequenced ‘Signs,’ the guitar remains the instrumental focal point

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When Jonny Lang, who will perform at the Peace Center in Greenville on Sunday, was preparing to release his new album, “Signs,” he remarked that the album was an effort to turn his searing, electrifying, bluesy guitar-playing back into a prominent role in his music. It was something of a confusing statement, seeing as how for many, that guitar never left.

For more than 20 years and nine albums, Lang, who began his major-label career with the hit “Lie to Me” in 1997, slung out guitar solos like the second coming of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Equally adept at rock, blues, and soul, Lang was a stunningly skilled player and singer, all the more remarkable for the fact that he began his career in his mid-teens. Even when his music turned toward a more gospel-influenced sound on 2006’s “Turn Around,” he still took the opportunity to shoot sparks on guitar whenever he could. So how could he think that his six-string had taken a back seat?

“Actually, what I meant was that with the last couple of records, the guitar wasn’t really the centerpiece of the album as much as in the past,” Lang says. “I was listening to older stuff like Howlin’ Wolf when I was writing this album, and something clicked again with me, with the production style and how great these guitar riffs sounded. The song builds around the anchor of the riff, and that’s the centerpiece of the song. And it started me trying to write some songs like that.”

In that sense and several others, “Signs” is a definite artistic success. Kicking off with the largely acoustic stomper “Make It Move,” Lang’s playing, and his soulful rasp of a voice, are center stage, moving through roadhouse stompers (“Snakes”), thundering hard rock (“Last Man Standing”), and grinding blues swagger (the title track) before moving into soul and wide-screen ballads in the second half. The sound is raw and massive, and the album is a great example of proper song-sequencing, starting stripped-down and acoustic and ending with an epic showstopper (the near-six-minute “Singing Songs”).

“That’s actually one of the elements that I’m most concerned about, is the song order,” Lang says. “I don’t get too conscious of steering the other facets of making the record, but that’s one of the things I’m conscious of.”

Lang co-produced “Signs” with Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (with an assist from Josh Kelly on “Bring Me Back Home”), the same group he’d worked with in “Turn Around.” Lang says the familiarity among the three men helped the music gel nicely.

“After so many years, you meet a lot of people who do what you do and who you feel like you would get along with for a particular project,” he says, “and I’ve been so lucky to meet amazing people and musicians and get to know a lot of them. Drew and Shannon, we’re friends, and with all the people I work with now, whether it’s on the road or in the studio, it’s more about the hang. It’s about the friendship and the sense of community. It’s a family thing, and then out of that, great music gets made from that.”

One of the surprising things about the “great music” is how much of it was built in the studio rather than planned out beforehand. In a video clip accompanying the release of “Signs,” Lang, Ramsey, Sanders, and the band often seem to be trying ideas on the spur of the moment, throwing different ideas at a song to see what works. As it turns out, that’s just how Lang works best.

“A long time ago, I remember the feeling of, ‘I’m scared to fail, and I’m scared to fail in front of people I respect,’” he says, “and it’s hard to let go of that. But one of the fun things is that I’ve learned to trust that. I just step off the cliff. And luckily, you’re not stepping off the edge of the cliff to your death; you can try it over and over again in the studio. You do that enough times you learn to trust your instincts and flow with it.”
Jonny Lang w/ Doyle Bramhall II

When: Sunday, Feb. 25, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Peace Center, 300 S. Main St., Greenville
Tickets: $35-$55
Info: 864-467-3000, https://www.peacecenter.org/

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