ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 28, 2002
By Steve Newton
A lot of today’s practicing blues artists have stories to tell about influential run-ins with pioneering bluesmen, and Kenny Neal is no exception. When he was a little kid he was handed a harmonica by swamp-blues legend Slim (“I’m a King Bee”) Harpo, who was a friend of Neal’s father, Louisiana singer and blues harpist Raful Neal.
“They used to share trailers and use each other’s equipment,” recalls Kenny, on the line from a tour stop in Denver, Colorado, “and one day Slim was deliverin’ a trailer that they hauled equipment in to my dad. He was just kiddin’ around with me and told me to go into the trailer, then he closed the doors on me, and it got pitch-dark. I got phobia and freaked out, so that harmonica was just to kind of quieten me down, actually.”
Although Neal’s instrument of choice these days is a battered mid-’60s Fender Telecaster—the one featured on the cover of his latest CD, One Step Closer—he still has a fondness for that old pacifier, the blues harp. He also knows his way around the lap-steel guitar, bass, drums, piano, and trumpet. Those multiple talents served Neal well when he moved from Baton Rouge to Toronto in his early 20s, setting off on a career that included a two-year stint with the Downchild Blues Band.
“That was a good experience bein’ in that band,” he notes, “because I had a chance to move across Canada and see the other part of the country. And also, finding a blues band up there just made me feel more at home.”
Neal is currently touring with his own quartet, which includes younger brothers Darnell and Frederick (on bass and keyboards, respectively), and long-time B. B. King drummer Tony Coleman. When he plays the Yale Hotel on Wednesday (March 6), Neal will likely glean some material from One Step Closer, which boasts bluesy renditions of tunes by John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Sonny Landreth, Bob Dylan, Willie P. Bennett, and Colin Linden.
The 44-year-old musician may also draw on the Slim Harpo songbook, having recently recorded a Harpo tribute album with his father, his brothers, and members of the original Slim Harpo band. He might even throw in a Buddy Guy tune, in reference to his time spent as a teenager playing bass in the Chicago blues great’s touring band. Those early experiences were crucial in broadening Neal’s vocational horizons.
“By leaving home, touring all over Europe and the States, it just opened me up to knowing that this is really what I want to do, instead of just playin’ locally around Baton Rouge. It motivated me into puttin’ the Kenny Neal Band together.”