BluesWax Sittin’ In With
The American Bluesman On His Family Festival
By Dan D. Harrell
Last week, in Part One of his interview with BluesWax’ Dan Harrell, Kenny Neal gave us an artist’s view of playing on the Blues Cruise. This week he talks about his upcoming festival and his latest CD.
Dan D. Harrell for BluesWax: You’ve got a pretty important event coming up – you and the Family are sponsoring a festival on March 3. Tell the readers a little about it and how they can get more info.
Kenny Neal: For complete information, they can go to kennyneal.net and click on Family & Friends Heritage Blues Festival. There are video clips of each one of the artists. They are almost all my local artists that I grew up with and been knowing for years. Some of them are big regional stars, like Chris Thomas King and Big Luther Kent. You can go to the website and see everybody I have on board. But the unique thing about my festival is that we have a Discovery Stage; that is set-up with great musicians as a rhythm section and players can sign up like a jam session and you get a chance to perform one or two songs. I’m expecting all the musicians in the surrounding area to show up, people from the region, and even some international folks as well, some from France. This is going to be an annual event, just something from the Neal Family to help preserve the blues.
BW: That’s March 3 from noon to 10 p.m., and maybe a little longer?
KN: Probably a little longer. It’ll probably be at least noon to midnight by the time we finish. We want everybody to bring their lawn chairs and we’ve got all kinds of traditional good food, like jambalaya and barbeque – Louisiana style. And, of course, we’ve got lots of cold beer. A lot of booze [laughs], I mean a lot of blues, well and a lot of booze, too! [more laughs]
BW: Talk a little about the kind of music people can expect to hear and see.
KN: Well, we’re going all the way from back to the ’50s with the Excello style of Slim Harpo, we’ve got his original guys from his band that we’re going to be inducting them into the Louisiana Hall of Fame. The four original guys who are still alive and still performing – they’re going to perform here too, as well as receiving their awards. Then we have my daughter, Syreeta Neal, who is going to play a tribute to my sister [Jackie Neal] who we lost in 2005. Then I got my nephew Tyree Neal and my brother Raful “Lil Ray” Neal. That’s about half of the festival, then all the other acts, including Kent, King, and Chris LeBlanc. So it’s going to be a great day of music – all sides of music from zydeco, to country, to Cajun – we’re hitting all the music this area is famous for. Then we’re going to do another one in Sacramento on April 15, which we’ll have more information about soon.
BW: You’re having the festival partially to support the St. Paul DeVince Food Bank, with everyone encouraged to bring canned food for them. Why have you chosen to support them?
KN: Well, I was downtown here in Baton Rouge to pick up a friend at the bus station, and I looked across the street and saw this huge lineup. I couldn’t believe that for a city of our size, there was such a lineup to get free food, just trying to feed themselves and their families. So it immediately popped into my head that if I did a festival, I would have to help out the food bank. I went over and met with the people and they were all excited and all for it, and it just took off from there. I’m getting a lot of support around the city for that, too. So I’m glad I thought about that. [Readers who wish to support the food bank can do so by contacting Kenny at kennyneal.net.]
BW: How would you describe your style of music and how would you like your listeners to think about the kind of music you play?
KN: We named our style “Swamp Blues,” and that’s a mixture between the Cajun stuff we have, soul music, and the New Orleans style. We combine all that together, and that’s where we’re coming from. I like that Cajun feel and the New Orleans second-line funky stuff, you know? Then, right here in Baton Rouge, there was/is the Slim Harpo style, which is a mixture between the blues and Cajun – with a bit of that News Orleans feel. We call it “Fat Back,” we got names for [things], if you say “Fat Back” the drummer automatically knows what kind of beat I want. “Gut Bucket” is when we put the music “In the Pocket.” So we got all that here, and I but it all together and called it “Swamp Blues.”
“Gut Bucket” means we’re going to “Put it in the Pocket” and just hold it right there and just groove with the music. And these guys around here understand that language. When people hear that, that’s why they know my music is different.
BW: Your latest CD is Hooked On Your Love. Tell the readers about it.
KN: Well, the Blues Cruise before this last one, I was in the middle of writing some songs and putting them together, so we took advantage of the cruise [to work on it]. Me and my brothers and my nephew and my wife were all sitting in the room, and we were trying to write this song. And my son came up with the music said listen to this. I liked that and my little nephew said I should sing “hooked on your love” to that. So he had the punch line and Kenny Jr. had the music. So after the cruise I went back home and finished it up. So if you look at the publishers, I’ve got about six Neals on that one record. [laughs]
BW: In 2011 you were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame with your dad Raful. Tell the story of how that happened and your feelings.
KN: Oh man, that was so great. But they surprised me with mine. I flew back home to be with my mom; I was so excited for my dad being inducted. I was there for that reason only. And after that, they go, “Well we got one more guy here.” And I was wondering who that was going to be. I thought they’d just found another guy out of Louisiana who I didn’t know. And then they called my name; that really caught me off guard. It was very precious to me because as a little bitty boy growing up, I was always in the car with my dad going to a gig. He just took me under his wing everywhere we’d go. We did everything together. So for us to go into the Hall of Fame together was, like, you can’t top that.
BW: Speaking of your dad and some other Louisiana musicians, some readers may not know that your dad’s band The Clouds featured a young, unknown guitar player that’s gone on to a pretty good career: Buddy Guy. What are your feelings about Buddy?
KN: I am very proud of Buddy and I’m glad he hung in there. When he left here, he and my dad were supposed to go together. But my dad had just started a family, so he stayed here to raise his family. Then Phil Guy, Buddy’s younger brother, joined my dad’s band. So Buddy went to Chicago. And Buddy really hung in there and stuck through hard times. When I was eighteen/nineteen, Buddy sent for me, and I played bass in his band through the ’70s and that was a hard time for the blues. But Buddy hung in there and it finally paid off for him. And I’m glad that he’s not going to his grave without getting a taste of the good life. He deserves it.
BW: When you’re not making your own music, what are you doing?
KN: These days, I listen to the ratchets on my wrench set whenever I can. I got a ’51 panel wagon that I’m doing on the west coast now. So when I’m off, I’m listening to the sound of the ratchet wrenches, turning bolts and screws. I’m gonna call it the Blues Mobile.
BW: Anything else you’d like to say?
KN: I just want people to go over to kennyneal.net and read more about the family, and to keep on supporting the blues. We’re very lucky to have a big following, so I just want to thank them so much for supporting us. And thanks to BluesWax for talking about our music.
Dan D. Harrell is contributing writer for BluesWax and president of The Write Answer in San Jose, CA, specializing in writing, public relations and marketing consulting. Contact him by commenting below or at email@example.com.
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