I got the chance to chat to Kerry Kearney frontman with the Kerry Kearney Band from New York. He is a consummate guitarist and especially known for his intense slide guitar work.
He has been a musician for many decades and has opened for many acts, BB King and ZZ Top to name two, also was guitarist with Jefferson Starship. Recently he brought out an album entitled “Tales from The Psychedelta” on Highlander Records; a sort of compendium of his work so far, and a great introduction to anyone who does not know his music and wants to know more. The discussion went something like this…
Words: Colin Campbell
Pictures: Supplied by Highlander
Hi Kenny, thanks for taking time out to talk to Blues Matters, where and how are you today?
I’m at Breezy Point Queens, on the coast of New York, across from Coney Island and Brooklyn. Coney Island has the best hot dogs, at Nathan’s!
How have you been coping during this pandemic?
Not too bad. Not playing much; maybe four times in the past six or seven months. I’ve been doing some online concerts and guitar tuition. That’s pretty much it. All the musicians are going crazy, what can you do, hopefully the vaccinations will be done quickly. My Doctor friends say the vaccine’s safe. I’m sixty, over here they are vaccinating those over sixty five. See what happens!
Describe what you mean by the term Psychedelta, when did you first come up with the term?
You know this; I was doing some blues with a band from Brooklyn about thirty years ago. We were playing and there was the Grateful Dead band playing. I got up and jammed with them. When I came of stage the sound man said “Wow that was psychedelta”. I said to him I’m taking that phrase. I’m heavily influenced by the Delta blues, Chicago and electric but love Louisiana blues, the New Orleans style, that kind of thing. I love every type of blues. When we were making records with the band I really loved the Louisiana beats with slide guitar from the delta. I fused them together. Psychedelta can be that but also mixed with a lot of jamming, so you can feel the music at the same time. Anders Osborne, he does this, he’s a jam band kind of guy. North Mississippi AllStars do this as well. The new album compilation Tales From The Psychedelta has songs we have played for twenty five years. A lot of the songs are timeless and we felt we had to get it out there! We’re working on a new album which should be released next year. Compiling some songs for that just now.
Let’s go back to where it all began for you, when did you first pick up a guitar and play?
I remember watching the Beatles when I was three years old. From a musical standpoint I had no one to gauge them against. I had older brothers, they were all into music. I had my education in the sixties from them. I listened to Cream, The Doors, Psychedelia from San Francisco and the British Blues movement. When I was eleven or twelve I was playing with some friends of mine and formed a band, we only knew a couple of chords and made some noise! I listened to the album Layla, the track Have You Ever Loved a Woman and tried picking out the riffs. My brother took this off the record player and put BB King Live At The Regal on! I said it sounds like Eric Clapton. My brother said no it sounds like HIM! I listened to a lot of blues music from the thirties and forties. When I heard Robert Johnson, it was great. I thought if I got the education, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page got from listening to those sort of players then I would get to the source of the music. I understood that’s where the mood comes from!
Are you a self- taught guitarist?
Pretty much. My brother played guitar around the house. At ten years old I got my first real guitar. My friend played piano, he showed me a couple of chords, and then my brother would jam with me. He said jamming was the best way to learn.
Did you always want to play the guitar, were there any other instruments you played?
I played the drums when I was really young. I got a drum kit for Christmas and was on it for five hours straight. For some reason I got back into playing guitar. It’s the sound!
Were your family supportive of you being a musician then?
I was going to be a New York City Policeman! A lot of my friends became Policemen. I stopped drinking and stuff when I was seventeen. I lived in a beach community where when I got out of school in June, I took my shoes off and didn’t put them back on for three months. We just partied and played guitar when I was a teenager! I was having a bad relationship and a friend called me from California and told me to come and bring my band over! He was a roadie for Jefferson Starship. We opened for them. What happened was the lead singer came up and said “That was great”. A year later, when I was twenty six I was about to go to Police Academy, hair all shaved, packed up. A friend said you’re having a bad time pack up and come over here to California. I went out there, slept in a big old church that was a rehearsal place. Marty Balin lead singer came and jammed with me on the couch and brought a whole lot of Jefferson Airplane songs to play. Stuff I remembered him playing when I was a kid. He said “We’re going on the road for three months do you want to come with us?” I called back to New York and told my friends and everybody this is what I wanted to do! My family were of the opinion if it was best for me then do it1In three weeks I learned sixty songs and the tour bus came outside the church. I put my stuff in the bus and didn’t come home for five years! If you’re travelling three hundred miles in a bus and get to a gig at 3pm, do a sound check, play the gig, on to the bus again. After three days of this I was standing at the side of stage with my head in my hands, I didn’t know if could keep doing this. But I got on that stage full of energy and did it!
Any tales from the road from the Jefferson Starship days you can tell?
I remember more about seeing the sights of America when travelling. Let me think….We played Russia during the Communist era. We played a variety show. We were on the Variety Channel on television. We did the show, went to Leningrad. When I came out of the hotel The Beatles were there! Playing with Marty got me my whole feeling of musical education and business side going. I learned how to be professional on the road in a sense. Had to know what to say to people and not to! In Blues music, it’s so ground floor, you meet Club Managers… You take your own instruments on stage, not like Starship, we had road crew!
You got any stand out concerts that you have played?
I played with BB King three times. First place was at the West Ferry Theatre, it’s played in the round. We opened, the place was full, and it was fantastic. To be on the same bill as BB was amazing. We played Blues 2000, in a resort place in New York, the “posh part” back in the 50s! Shemekia Copeland and Susan Tedeschi played. Paul Oscher was there. I love places where there is a dance floor wherever we play; I like people boogying around us it’s more fun. I did the Guinness Blues festival in Ireland that was great. The south bay festival here is great too.
What’s the best musical advice you have had?
When I did the stuff with Marty, his dad was his manager, a very wise man. His advice was love what you do and keep your musician friends very close. Be respectful and thankful. Just love music, even if you don’t get anywhere with it. If it’s in you never give it up. It’s what your life is. Being close to the people you’re playing with is important.
What does blues music style mean to you as a musician?
It’s a universal language in some respects. It’s all about when you’re jamming. Nothing’s written down; it comes out of you in that sense. My favourite blues musician is Mississippi John Hurt and all the greats. I find, one artist is no better than the rest. If you have a Rembrandt painting and then a Picasso painting it’s all art and what pleases you! So all blues artists in their own separate ways have their own soul. There’s a feeling when you hear a blues song being played, especially on the radio. Blues is timeless. It’s cyclical. Some of my songs on the latest album are twenty five years old. The thing I find great is being eighty years old and still playing this music. I couldn’t play pop music at that age. There was a place called Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village, we played there once a month. That is close to New York University. The students would come there at weekends. Most the audience was young. We came on stage and played blues music and they all started dancing. I’d play I’m A Man. A kid came out of the audience and asked if I’d written that. They were not exposed to this music. I find that a positive thing. I like putting a dancing spin to my blues.Treme Jazz and Blues Club in New York City is a place where the band is the main attraction, there’s also My Fathers Place, a bar in Brooklyn where every big band has played.
Your advice for young blues musicians would be?
Go to jams; find out what people are playing and what is happening. You can meet other musicians and start a band that way. Do it out of love, if it’s in your heart you’ll know what to do. Get to know people that can get you shows, get a good demo together. If you love what you do, that love will shine through!
Any influences with the way you play slide guitar?
Hearing Johnny Winter play, really got me playing. Using open tuning was the thing. Mississippi John Hurt influenced my finger picking style. Blind Willie Johnson, Earl Hooker and Muddy Waters all influeces on my playing. You need the mood when your open tuning. I try to be articulate with what I do. I use a metronome. I played with sonny Landreth a few times, amazing!
You got a song writing technique?
Always a riff and a melody. You can sing lots of blues songs that way. I wrote Shaking Like Jelly, in a short amount of time. When I play this to an audience there’s a real call and response feel. There are so many ways of making music like that. I’ll write a whole album’s music then go back and then put the words in it might just take a couple of weeks! A lot of the songs on the new album we did in a friends garage when we were younger experimenting with sounds, tones and microphone placing. We learned as we were working. These are songs that people like. People have taken to it, five songs on the top fifty on the RMR chart.
What are your aspirations for 2021, do you make resolutions?
I hope for peace. We have a new regime in our Government. Hopefully we can all work together. We’ve got to be patient. If the world was a Blues club, we’d all be better!
Anything we don’t know about Kerry Kearney, you could possibly share with us?
I like the group Abba! I get the idea, it’s very good popular music for the masses. They were offered a billion dollars to reform. That shows some integrity!
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Getting out and doing what we do best! A new album in Spring hopefully. Need my beard trimmed as well. Get everyone dancing. It makes me happy when people are happy. Just getting out playing live. Keep the faith, keep bluesing.
Great chatting with you, thanks!