Though he’s from Louisiana, Kenny Neal’s blues sound like they were rooted in Chicago. His take on the raucous, hard-edged, big city blues fools some into thinking he grew up on the windy streets instead of the swampier environs of his native Baton Rouge.
Even though his dad Raful was ranked as a top Louisiana blues harpist, his main influence was Chicago blues harp legend Little Walter. Kenny picked up on his dad’s style of harp playing, learning to play several other instruments he found lying around the house as well. “My dad played a lot, so my thing was that if he needed a guitar player, a bass player, whenever he was short a musician, I would kind of fill in. I enjoyed the bass guitar.”
That led to a gig at age 17 as Buddy Guy’s bassist and a schooling in another interpretation of Chicago blues. “Buddy’s a homeboy from Baton Rouge, even though people think he’s from Chicago, and it was like being with family,” Neal says.
Though bass was his main instrument, Neal had been introduced to harp at a very early age by Slim Harpo. One version of the story is that Harpo stuck a harp in Neal’s mouth instead of a pacifier to quiet him when he was crying, but Neal says the truth is a bit darker. Harpo was returning a trailer he had borrowed from Raful and told young Neal to see if he had left anything inside. When the child climbed in, Harpo slammed the doors shut on him. “He kinda freaked me out there,” laughs Neal, who says that Harpo gave him a harp to buy his silence as much as pacify him. But Neal long ago forgave him for the traumatic incident and just finished a tribute to Harpo and Raful.
Though his prowess on any instrument he picks up is impressive, Neal’s guitar work is formidable. At this year’s Carolina Blues Festival held in May in Greensboro, Neal launched a string-bending B.B. King impersonation but at a speed that’d kill B.B. before ripping through a jazzed-up version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” then sitting down to play lap steel on Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too.” It’s a tight outfit, a family affair with brother Darnell on bass and brother Fred on keys, who have been with Neal since they were teenagers. Although Neal’s voice can be a bit raspy at times, once he gets warmed up he sings like Otis doing Sam Cooke–warm but with enough character in it to let you know he’s had some rough spots in his lifetime.
Neal’s still very family oriented, performing with the whole Neal family, which at one time included 10 brothers and sisters. “I had a rough year,” Neal sighs. “I lost my dad [Raful passed away at age 68], my little brother and my baby sister, all in eight months. So the family is kind of reduced a little bit.”
Despite the losses, Neal and family carry on the musical tradition. His two youngest brothers, two nephews, son “Lil Ray” Raful and daughter all have recent CDs out. “Everybody pretty well got their own thing happening,” Neal says proudly.
Kenny Neal plays the Blue Bayou Club in Hillsborough Saturday, Nov. 5.