“The music is what pulls me through all my hard times,” said Kenny Neal, who will headline the New York Life Electric City Blues Festival on Saturday at Music Haven in Central Park, Schenectady. “I can always sit there when I’m having a bad day and grab my acoustic guitar and, you know, it goes away.”
Neal needed great music to make major hard times go away, and so he made some. His stellar new “Let Life Flow” album is a triumph over four tragedies and a major illness that hit him nearly all at once.
His father, bluesman Raful Neal; younger brother Ronnie; sister Jackie; and his longtime drummer, Kennard Johnson; all died within 11 months. “My drummer died the same week my baby sister had been murdered,” said Neal.
“He had been with me 19 years — so he was family to me as well,” mourned Neal, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C shortly thereafter. The illness sidelined him for the first time after touring for nearly 30 years with his father’s band, then with Buddy Guy and as a blues star in his own right.
No wonder he looked so incandescently happy and sounded so fantastic at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last month, his first show in two years.
“It was happiness and sadness, all together for me,” he said. “It’s good that we’re there with the fans who fly in and enjoy the festival,” he reflected. “But the next week, after the festival is over, it’s back to square one again for the folks who live there.”
Born in New Orleans and raised 14 miles away on a West Baton Rouge farm, Neal jumped at the chance to play free at the Northeast Blues Society’s “Toast to New Orleans” fall 2005 Katrina benefit at the Empire State Plaza. His aunt was still missing then, and Neal feared she’d died in the flood. “It took us four months to find her,” he said.
Grateful that she’s fine now, after initially being too shocked to contact anyone from exile in Texas, Neal sympathized with those in New Orleans now losing their (toxic) FEMA trailers. “They don’t have anywhere to go, and they don’t know how to start all over again.”
Neal had to start the album that became “Let Life Flow” all over again after a pre-tour physical detected hepatitis C, while four loved ones died around him. “All this fell into my hands, and I needed to share my feelings,” he said.
His original plan to record new interpretations of blues classics flew out the window as he began writing such triumph-over-hard-times blues as the title track and “Fly Away,” and recording new versions of Willie Dixon and Ivory Joe Hunter songs, sung with great depth. Percolating with spicy zydeco beats under an often sad but ultimately soaring blues expression of loss and recovery, it gives you the tragedy and the strength to get past it.
Always a commanding singer and an adroit, fluent swamp-blues guitarist and harmonica player, Neal has made the album of his life, one his upbringing in the royal family of Louisiana blues uniquely prepared him to deliver.
“I grew up listening mainly to a lot of stuff that was developed in Louisiana,” he recalled, “a mixture of Cajun, zydeco and blues, which gives us the sound we have today and the feel of the music.”
Learning that feel in his father’s band in juke joints from Alabama to Texas, he followed fellow Louisianan Buddy Guy to Chicago when disco dried up Neal’s father’s gigs, forcing him into retirement. In Baton Rouge, musicians only played on weekends, but not in the windy city.
“I got to Chicago on Monday morning at 11 and the band was wide open and rolling at the Checkerboard Lounge. I had to call my daddy and say, ‘Every day is Friday up here.’ ”
Touring as Guy’s bassist, Neal took his first flight ever at 19, to Paris. “In those days, French people would applaud you only at the end of your set, and I didn’t know that,” Neal recalled. “So we play song after song and they sit there like zombies and don’t move. So, I said, ‘I don’t think these people like us,’ because I wasn’t hip to their style. At the end of our concert, we got a standing ovation.”
It’s been standing ovations ever since for Neal. Winner of many blues awards and Grammy nominations and the 1991 Theater World Award as “The Most Outstanding New Talent On and Off Broadway” for his role in the Langston Hughes/Taj Mahal musical “Mule Bone,” he won the Alliance for Community Media first place award just last week for Entertainment Talk Show — Professional for “Neal’s Place,” the cable program that reaches 40,000 northern California viewers six nights a week and many more via www.kennyneal.net.
He launched the show during treatment for hepatitis, and began writing his autobiography, “I Remember When,” at the same time. On “Neal’s Place,” he interviews and plays with fellow musicians, and speaks candidly of healing.
Perhaps even more gratifying than his recent award is the clean liver scan his doctor reported on the Fourth of July, and returning to the stage. His band features brothers Darnell, bass, and Frederick, keyboards, plus drummer Brian Morris and keyboardist Michael Robinson. “I really feed off my audience because I’m there to perform with them, and have them be part of my show as well.”
The festival schedule:
2 p.m.: J.V. & the Cutters
2:45 p.m.: Joe Lowry & the Second Mile Blues Band
3:30 p.m.: Blues Sanctuary
4:15 p.m.: Kenny Neal
6 p.m.: Tas Cru & the Slow Happy Boys.
Admission is free.
SONES DE MEXICO
They play folkloric Mexican acoustic instruments, but there’s nothing quaint about their Aztec romp through Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks” in 5/8 time, or their contortion of the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 into a jarocho in Veracruzan style.
Sones de Mexico’s new album “Esta Tierra Es Tuya (This Land Is Your Land)” covers lots of ground. So cultural whiplash is almost guaranteed when these intrepid, Chicago-based masters and mutators of Mexican music — armed with 70 instruments — fire up traditional tunes and blow big holes in them on Sunday at Central Park’s Music Haven, starting at 7 p.m. Free admission, fierce fun.
Kenny Neal’s group isn’t the only family-based band playing here this week. In fact, pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph calls his crew the Family Band because it features two of his first cousins: bassist/singer Danyel Morgan and drummer Marcus Randolph — plus keyboardist Jason Crosby.
Randolph headlines at Albany’s Empire State Plaza on Wednesday. Last time around, he opened for Eric Clapton at the Times Union Center, and Clapton helps Randolph burn up “Jesus Is Just Alright” on Randolph’s new “Colorblind” album of hot blues-gospel jams and sizzling rockers.
Blues singer Daniel Cotton opens this free show at 6 p.m., Hip-hop titans Arrested Development follow at 7:15 and Robert Randolph & the Family Band hit at 8:45.