Kenny Neal showed all of his youthful energy, charisma, and talent in his show at the Cactus Moon. He started things out with a slow-rolling, guitar-driven instrumental playing in his fluid, sensuous style, a big bright smile on his face. He then launched into "Please Forgive Me," a slow blues grinder where Kenny started with rich, bell-like chords. Kenny went on to show a number of special effects and guitar tricks: making his guitar do a long, low wail, constantly changing pitch and pacing, playing one-handed, all the while slowly building the song and the crowd's enthusiasm to a climax.
Kenny represents the younger generation of blues players with his often up-tempo, funky blues seasoned with a little zydeco, swamp rock, and cajun riffs. Yet he has a reverence for blues history. He showed both of these by moving from the fast, driving blues of "I'm Ready," assisted by some great keyboard work by his brother Patrick, into "Red Rooster." Here Kenny started out on guitar, then played some great harp, growling his vocals like Howling Wolf. After a short medley of blues covers, Kenny brought out his dad Raful to sing and play harp. Raful plays harp in a very fluid and passionate style. With his strong tenor voice and clear delivery he belted out the blues on "Big Boss Man" and "Put on Your Red Dress." It's easy to see where Kenny learned the blues by watching his pop in action.
Kenny and Raful have a clear admiration for each other they show openly on- stage. And they enjoy playing with each other. They blended their playing styles well on "Raining in My Heart" with Kenny providing jangling guitar licks while Raful played a great, slow, mournful harp. Both players, with Kenny's brothers' support, provided some soulful playing and singing. Since the Neal's hail from nearby Baton Rouge, LA, this was like a neighborhood gathering with old friends and fans. Kenny plays every few months at the Cactus moon and tries to include Raful if he feels like playing. The warmth and enthusiasm of the crowd was more than the response to great blues; it was also the welcoming reserved for old, valued friends who have become like members of the family.
After a break, Kenny demonstrated more of his musical talent on his up-tempo original, "Howling at the Moon." Kenny played a smooth, fluid harp, sang in a husky, emotion filled voice, played some strong lap steel, and finished up with some brilliant guitar licks. Kenny can do it all on guitar: play slow and soulful, fast and flashy, make his guitar "talk," and follow his band mates with solid support.
In addition to Raful, Kenny asked his old friend and Houston native Poppa Joe to sit in and play some blues trumpet. Poppa Joe blows a smooth, fluid trumpet with style and subtlety. Many young blues and jazz horn players could learn a great deal from Poppa Joe. In addition to being a family friend, Poppa Joe has some strong blues credentials of his own, having spent 5 years with Bobby Blue Bland back in his younger days. Kenny and Poppa Joe gave the enthusiastic crowd a superb performance on "Stormy Monday." With Kenny providing the soulful guitar riffs, Poppa Joe blew his smooth, understated trumpet and sang in a strong, clear voice with a hip inflection. They followed up with a rich, soulful delivery on "Every Day I Have the Blues." Poppa Joe again providing some great horn work and strong, passionate vocals.
Poppa Joe took a break as Raful came up for a few more numbers, including his original "Old Friend," a slow, blues grinder, Raful again provided strong harp playing and clear, solid vocals. Kenny finished things off by having Poppa Joe join in again with him and Raful on a trio of songs, starting with the slow blues of "I'm a Long Way from Home." Kenny let Raful and Poppa Joe take the lead on harp and trumpet respectively while he provided the funky guitar licks. They closed with a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Come Marching In." Raful blew a smooth, powerful harp while Poppa Joe played his trumpet with hip authority. Given the geography and hour (2:00 AM Sunday), this song really wrapped things up well. While the crowd stood and cheered for more, it was time to shut things down for the night.
If you ever venture south to Houston, you can find the friendly blues outpost of the Cactus Moon in Humble, 18 miles north along Highway 59 in Humble. The friendly, capable staff and owner Tom Gardner deliver great blues, libations, and good food for a reasonable price. You can get American, Cajun, or Tex-Mex off the menu, or, for the more adventurous, gator tail (broiled or fried). The Cactus Moon has become one of the top blues venues in Texas by providing a nice mix of local, regional, and national blues acts in a room with a good sound.
This review is copyright © 2002 by Rich Benson, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.