Kenny Neal returns to the music after being sidelined by a series of tragedies.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
After touring every year since 1976, swamp blues player and W.C. Handy Award winner Kenny Neal was forced off the road after being diagnosed with Hepatitis C. It was the last event in a long line of incredibly painful personal experiences that happened to the bluesman over an eight-month period. His father, the harp player Raful Neal, succumbed to bone cancer, and his sister, blues singer Jackie Neal, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Also, one of Neal’s brothers had recently passed away from the same illness that he had contracted.
Weakened by medication, Neal decided he was too feeble for touring in September of 2006. He announced his sabbatical in a heartfelt letter to his friends, family and fans that was posted on his website. Though unable to play his music to audiences around the country, the multi-instrumentalist reflected on the recent deaths in his family and embarked on a number of creative ventures.
During his treatment, Neal wrote his first book, a 350-page collection of anecdotes titled I Remember When. The nonfiction work relates his experiences with blues greats including Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. One story tells of Neal meeting with funk legend James Brown backstage at the 2001 Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. Neal watched on as Brown told his crew that he needed a hair dryer. Brown’s people returned with a little handheld number from a local drugstore. “The Godfather of Soul” said that a puny thing like that would not do and demanded a standup hair drier with a hood, the same kind that are used in salons. It came later that night in the back of a pickup truck.
Neal also got his own television show, titled “Neal’s Place,” on a Bay Area public access station. The half hour program features the bluesman playing songs and interviewing blues and gospel acts including Chris Cain and upcoming guest Taj Mahal. “I don’t have to go and research none of my artists,” he says of the show. “I have known these people 35 years. For example, when Sonny Rhodes comes on, I’m gonna ask him for my $300 back.”
In addition, Neal also somehow found the time to record 17 songs at home between his trips to the doctor and his other projects. The songs will be released on a new CD titled Hurt Before You Heal. The resilient musician says the numbers include songs written by his father Raful and some originals that he describes as a “smooth type of the blues.”
Despite his initial reluctance to take almost a year off from the road, Neal now views it as a blessing. “I’m getting back on track,” he says. “It’s been a hell fire run though, bro. Actually, I needed this break.”
But, that doesn’t mean that Neal is not excited about getting back out there and playing his first show since 2006 at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. “I’ve got a whole year built up inside of me,” he says. “I’m gonna come out hitting pretty hard.”
KENNY NEAL PLAYS THE MAIN ARENA OF THE MONTEREY BAY BLUES FESTIVAL SATURDAY AT 6PM.