Kenny Neal is one of the best young proponents of southern Louisiana swamp blues playing today. Born October 14, 1957 in Baton Rouge, Kenny, the oldest of 10 children, has been playing the blues since he was a small child. His first musical experience came from his father, blues harpman Raful Neal, as well as the many family friends who were always stopping by, like Buddy Guy, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo. In fact it was Slim Harpo who gave Kenny his first harmonica when he was just 3 years old. It was an attempt to pacify the crying child. I guess it worked because Kenny soon mastered the harmonica, then when no one was around he would sneak into his father’s rehearsal room and play the various instruments he found there. He also became proficient at the bass, trumpet, piano and later the guitar.
Growing up in such a strong musical environment, Kenny found himself on stage by the age of 6 at one of his father’s shows playing piano and singing Ray Charles' "What I Say," and loving it. By 13 he was the bass player on a regular basis in his dad’s band and at 17 Buddy Guy recruited him as HIS bass player. This was a big break for Kenny who spent the next three years in Chicago with Buddy Guy gaining some valuable experience. By the age of 20 he was ready to move on at Guy’s encouragement. Following Buddy's advice to concentrate on his guitar playing, Kenny moved to Toronto, formed his own band, which included his brothers Raful JR., Noel, Larry and Ronnie. The Neal Brothers Band, with Kenny fronting, has been together in one form or another ever since. Kenny returned to Baton Rouge in 1985 and in 1988 he joined the Alligator Record family where he proceeded to release a series of very successful albums that brought him international acclaim and recognition as one of the new breed of bluesmen extremely capable of carrying on the blues tradition that he grew up with.
The critics have been eager to praise him as one of the best of the younger blues generation. Some going so far as to add his name to the short list of future blues greats. A praise that his fans would readily agree with and a sentiment that was rousingly seconded by the enthusiastic crowd at his show at Famous Dave’s.
With his music deeply rooted in the Louisiana swamp blues tradition, Kenny brings an inventive contemporary flare to his playing. He brings a fresh energy to his performances that is smoldering just under the surface of his laid back stage presence. Backed by brothers Fredrick on keyboard, Gralin on drums, and Darnell on bass, the Neal Brothers are at the forefront of today’s blues scene. Their music combines the best of the Louisiana swamp blues tradition spiced with funky rhythms, present-day sensibilities and soulful vocals—all backed by Kenny’s exciting, slashing guitar style and masterful, deep-toned harmonica playing.
Kenny and his brothers opened this show with his song, "Howlin’ At The Moon," featuring Kenny blowing some powerful harp. He next switched to his lap steel guitar with some hard driving blues. He then picked up his guitar for the rest of the first set, coaxing some funky, swampy blues sounds out of those 6 strings. He got into a distinct and infectious groove early-on, with the first two songs lasting nearly half an hour. Switching gears slightly, he strolled right into a snappy blues shuffle before playing one of my favorite segments of the night—a medley of Guitar Slim’s "The Things That I Used To Do" which merged right into the sublime ‘Since I Met You Baby."
With a music that is influenced by the many diverse styles of the region they grew up in, swamp pop, blues, zydeco, country, R&B—a virtual melting pot of influences, the Kenny Neal band are a well oiled machine that melds these various styles and influences with a mastery that is deceptive. Because they have played together for so long they make the complex appear simple and yet are able to remain totally fresh sounding.
Kenny even brought in some good natured humor with his song, "Bop Till I Drop" that featured a definite jump beat with a distinctive west coast swing sound. He could have put on a Zoot suit and rocked the house the rest of the night and the audience would have been just as satisfied.
Kenny Neal is also another one of those masters at easily gaining rapport with his audience. It didn’t take much to get the large crowd singing along with him on his new song, "Blues Falling Down Like Rain" from his new album and title song out on Telarc Records (his new label). This audience participation continued throughout the night with the audience just loving this guy. This is definitely a blues act you never get tired of watching. It is easy to see why Kenny Neal has such a loyal and growing fan base and why the critics have hailed him as one of the best young bluesmen capable of carrying on the blues torch.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.