BRIDGEVIEW, ILL. - Even guitar heros 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.
"He walked right by me a few minutes ago backstage," said Lang last weekend, 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 Minnesota-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 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. "It's kind of one of those moments in my life when everything changes. It's a little hard to stay motivated when you hit a little bit of a lull. But I think it's good, man."
One thing Lang is sure about is how he's changed onstage.
"I've become a better listener, listening to the other musicians and trying to incorporate myself into the band as a whole rather than being just the front guy," said the singer/guitarist, who will return to Minnesota at the free Lakefront Jazz and Blues Festival Saturday in Prior Lake.
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.
"The adrenaline takes over and it's hard to reel that in sometimes," he said. "But I've definitely become better with the restraint."
On the live album, Lang was accompanied by his Minnesota sidemen: Jim Anton on bass, Barry Alexander on drums, Tommy Barbarella on keyboards and Sonny Thompson on guitars. Barbarella and Thompson are not involved with Lang's current tour, which will also take him to the Moondance Jam in Walker, Minn., on July 17.
Lang is calling this his Live by Request Tour because he's asking fans to make 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, N.D., 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.
How has fatherhood -- his twins will turn 3 in November -- affected his life?
"In so many crazy ways," he said. "But all of them are ultimately good. It's amazing to experience that type of love."
With another baby on the way, he sounds more like Kid Jonny than Papa Jon: "It's going to get crazier."
Records with Santana, Lauper
Lang has managed to squeeze in some side projects, including the Experience Hendrix Tour earlier this year with Joe Satriani, Ernie Isley and others. For Carlos Santana's upcoming album of cover songs, Lang recorded vocals for Howlin' Wolf's "Ain't Superstitious," but Santana wasn't in the studio with him.
Lang's guitar can be heard on two tracks, "Crossroads" and "How Blue Can You Get," on Cyndi Lauper's "Memphis Blues," which will be released this week.
"I was pleasantly surprised by her knowledge of and her ability to execute soul music like that," he said. "I didn't know that about her. She's incredible. Really nice lady. It was fun to work with her."
At Crossroads, Lang was on the bill with many of the greatest of the living guitar greats. Although he was the youngest picker onstage, he wasn't intimidated.
"I don't know if 'intimidating' is the word, but this is definitely a reality check," he said with a nervous giggle. "If there was a level of competition in my mind, I would be intimidated but I don't really think that way. It's pretty much just about having fun and trying to help the audience have a good time."
Down to the Crossroads
Guy, 73, the legend who influenced Clapton and the Rolling Stones, lets Lang start the Muddy Waters chestnut "Forty Days and Forty Nights" on guitar and vocals. After a chorus and verse, Ron Wood takes a crack at it. And then it's Guy's turn.
"C'mon, Buddy," Lang urges as Guy's loud, piercing guitar and expressive countenance fill the stadium. Soon Wood and Lang join in, and Lang is flashing a grin instead of his usual guitar-solo grimace. When it's over, shy, humble Jonny's smile is as wide as the stage.
"It's good to be between two young guys who play guitar," Guy declares. "I don't know how you feel, but I feel like I'm in heaven."
A few hours later, Guy comes back down to Earth to lead 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.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719