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Jon Bream, McClatchy Newspapers, Published July 18 2010

Jonny Lang: the Kid at the Crossroads

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Even guitar heroes can be humble, shy and quiet.

Jonny Lang had never met Eric Clapton. And he wasn’t about to introduce himself now, even though the guitar god invited the young blues-rock star to perform at his Crossroads Guitar Festival here last month.

“He walked right by me a few minutes ago backstage,” said Lang last month, sitting in Buddy Guy’s dressing room shortly before sharing the stage with Guy and the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood at the third benefit for Clapton’s Crossroads rehab center in the Caribbean. (Lang appeared at the first fest in 2004 in Dallas at Clapton’s invitation.)

Lang didn’t want to impose on Clapton. “There are just so many people around,” the Fargo-bred guitarist said. “There are probably like a hundred musicians on this thing, and he’s got to make his rounds. You can’t force these things.”

At 29, he is the same old Jonny Lang, that same boyish-looking dude with the ripped jeans, spiky hair and well-worn T-shirt. Offstage, he remains gracious, soft-spoken and polite. But 15 years into his career, Lang is at a crossroads: He split with his longtime Nashville manager last fall, he doesn’t have a record label for the new album he’s recording, and his wife is seven months pregnant with their third child.

“I’ve written a ton of songs, trying to find a direction,” said Lang, who snared a Grammy for best rock-gospel album for 2006’s “Turn Around,” his most recent studio effort.

One thing Lang is sure about is how he’s changed onstage.

One listen to Lang’s new concert CD, “Live at the Ryman” – recorded in 2008 and released this past spring on a one-album deal with Concord – makes it clear that his tendency to over-sing has dissipated.

Lang is calling this his Live by Request Tour because he’s asking fans to make song requests via jonnylang.com. “Lie to Me,” his 1996 breakthrough and biggest hit, is the most requested and included in the set anyway. There have been requests for “Free Bird” (he won’t do it) and other covers, but nothing yet for anything from “Smokin,’ ” his 1995 regional debut.

Lang was born in Fargo but launched his career at age 13 in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles in 2000. He gets back to the Twin Cities maybe once or twice a year. His three sisters, including singers Heidi Jo and Jesse (who was on “American Idol” in 2009), live here, and his mother is in northern Minnesota.

For the Crossroads finale of “Sweet Home Chicago,” all of the festival’s electric guitarists are expected to join in.

Lang marches to the center of the stage, behind a seated B.B. King, and plugs his Fender Telecaster into an amplifier. Then he looks up; he’s face to face with the elusive one.

Lang extends his hand. Finally, he gets to meet Eric Clapton – in front of 27,000 people and 20 other guitar stars.