Event(s) performed: Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest (2009)
The future of Baton Rouge swamp blues lies squarely in multi-instrumentalist Kenny Neal's capable hands. Along with a select few others (Larry Garner, for one), the second-generation southern Louisiana bluesman is entirely cognizant of the region's venerable blues tradition and imaginative enough to steer it in fresh directions -- as his albums for Alligator and Telarc Blues confirm.
Kenny Neal was born on October 14, 1957 in New Orleans, exposed to the swamp blues sound from day one. His dad, harpist Raful Neal, was a Baton Rouge blues mainstay, whose pals included Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo (the latter handed three-year-old Kenny an old harp one day as a toy, and that was it). At age 13, Neal was playing in his father's band, and he picked up a bass at 17 for Buddy Guy.
The guitarist recruited some of his talented siblings to form the Neal Brothers Blues Band up in Toronto (brother Noel later played bass behind James Cotton; five other Neal brothers also play in various bands!) before returning stateside. In 1987, Kenny Neal cut his debut LP for Florida producer Bob Greelee -- a stunningly updated swamp feast initially marketed on King Snake Records as Bio on the Bayou. Alligator picked it up the following year, retitled it Big News from Baton Rouge!!, and young Neal was on his way.
Neal's sizzling guitar work, sturdy harp, and gravelly, aged-beyond-his-years vocals have served him well ever since. An acclaimed 1991 stint on Broadway in a production of Mule Bone found him performing acoustic versions of Langston Hughes' poetry set to music by Taj Mahal. His 1994 Alligator set Hoodoo Moon rates as one of his most satisfying outings for that label; it would also be his last for Alligator. Toward the end of the '90s, Neal moved to the blues division of the jazz-based label Telarc. Blues Fallin' Down Like Rain (1998), What You Got (2000), and One Step Closer (2001) continue to incorporate his gritty Louisiana roots with a sophisticated Chicago/Memphis soul approach.
All Music Guide, Biography by Bill Dahl & Al Campbell