On June 29, Connor Kennedy will be throwing a party at Levon Helm Studios in celebration of the release of his first CD, Nothing Lasts: Nothing’s Over. The doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $20 general admission, $50 for a seat, free CD and poster. Food will be catered by YumYum Noodle Bar, and the performance by the Connor Kennedy Band, with special guests, will be preceded by a tribute to the Band by Kennedy’s students at the Paul Green Rock Academy in Woodstock, where he teaches guitar to kids age 8 to 18.
The venue is significant, representing the culmination of an association that started when Kennedy was 14 and volunteered to take out the garbage and do other chores so that he could listen to performances by Helm and his guest musicians: “the best in the world.” “Once someone flew in from South Africa to be there. And I had just driven there from Saugerties, for the same reason,” Kennedy said. Hence, his upcoming performance at Levon Helm’s “is a very full-circle moment. I’ve watched so many concerts there in complete awe.”
Since he began performing at age 13 – initially at the open mic at the Inquiring Minds Bookstore in his hometown of Saugerties – Kennedy has gained a dedicated followed for his virtuoso classic rock ‘n’ roll guitar-playing. His indoctrination came early: When he was still in preschool, he learned all the words and music to Grease and listened compulsively to a videotape of the Muppets episode featuring Alice Cooper. In elementary school, he was an avid reader and played the French horn and trumpet. (“I still have my trumpet and would like to develop my brass chops,” he said.)
He credits his third-grade teacher, at Riccardi Elementary School, Frances Murphy, for being especially encouraging of his musical talents. At Murphy’s prompting, Kennedy attended a special program for gifted and talented students at Mount Saint Mary College, where he took his first guitar lessons at age 10. After that, music took over his life: Kennedy would come home from school and play the guitar four to five hours a day. His babysitter’s oldest daughter was into Pink Floyd, which Kennedy thought was cool, so he asked his parents to get him The Wall for his birthday. “It blew my mind,” he recalled. “When I was playing guitar, I was listening to Pink Floyd. I was a fanboy.”
Kennedy doesn’t read music, and instead learns by ear. Guitar tablatures on the Internet have been important tools in his musical education, familiarizing him with a wide range of rock ‘n’ roll tunes. His parents “have been incredibly supportive,” not only buying him a guitar but also “an arsenal of equipment” including a drum set and bass. After his Dad gave him a Stevie Ray Vaughn CD, he got interested in the blues. “I did research and learned that all these classic bands I loved were rooted in the blues. I kind of immersed myself in that.”
After he started playing at Inquiring Minds, he practiced singing at home before his Mom came home from work. When he was 15, he formed a band with drummer Lee Falco (son of Tony Falco, the owner of the Falcon, the popular music venue in Marlboro) and professional bassist Kyle Esposito and organist Jeremy Baum. For the next three years they played gigs every Thursday through Sunday, with Kennedy doing all the bookings and advertising himself.
A high point of his nascent career was a Pink Floyd show held at the Bearsville Theater two years ago on Halloween; it was a smash success, attracting 400 people. Last year, Kennedy performed at Mountain Jam in an 11-piece band whose horn section was led by Jay Collins, musical director of the Gregg Allman Band and “a great mentor and friend.” He also was featured on the cover of Hudson Valley Magazine. He played with Amy Helm, another mentor, friend and fan, at Mountain Jam a few weeks ago, and lately has been playing gigs at City Winery and Rodeo Bar in Manhattan.
Few 18-year-olds have accomplished so much. But Kennedy, who in promoting himself always avoided mentioning his age and playing the prodigy card, has been loath to rest on his laurels. Playing covers at bars was a great way to learn how to be a good musician, Kennedy concedes, but he had bigger fish to fry.
It must be said the covers have not only reflected Kennedy’s spot-on sensibility and taste but have also at times managed to transcend their source material; recall his dark, spine-tingling version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” at Keegan’s a couple of months ago, which replaced the plaintive, optimistic yearning of the original with chilling irony. “That’s one of the nice things about music, that the meaning changes in different times and with a different view,” he said.
In order to achieve the full promise of his talent, he had to start working on his own stuff. He got some songwriting pointers from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, one of his main influences. (Other key influences are David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, blues guitarist Freddie King and Lowell George from Little Feat.) “I didn’t want just a demo of me playing other people’s songs, but I wanted my first recording to have a concept behind it,” said Kennedy.
The result is Nothing Lasts: Nothing’s Over, which was recorded over seven days at Applehead Studios with his current band, the Connor Kennedy Band. It features Lee Falco, bassist Brandon Morrison and keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller, a musician from Providence, Rhode Island who has toured the world playing with internationally famous rock musicians and whom Kennedy met last year through Paul Green, founder of the School of Rock. All of the cuts are originals, most written by Connor. “We’re taking everything we’ve learned playing rhythm and blues, just the way Pink Floyd and the Band and the Grateful Dead all listened to the music from the 1950s and 1960s and then interpreted it to write their own songs,” Kennedy said.
One song was co-written with Falco, and the last song on the album “was written by all of us collectively. Actually, it just happened. We were recording one song, and the energy in the studio was so perfect, we said, ‘Don’t stop. Let’s just take the music somewhere; we’re rolling.’ We overdubbed some vocals and made a song of it. It’s the best cut on the record.”
“There’s so many colors to the palette, and you have a thousand brushes when you walk into the studio,” said Kennedy, who produced the CD himself. “There’s a big argument computers have taken away the magic, but I like the old-fashioned way. You have to be really reserved and a little bit stingy: You can easily overdub 300 vocal harmonies on something, whereas the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on four tracks.”
Kennedy said that his coming of age has definitely benefited from the musical richness of the region. Musicians of all stripes “have been so nurturing to me and other talented young people as well,” he said. One of his biggest champions has been Amy Helm, who first encountered Kennedy at his first public appearance playing the Woodstock Farmers’ Market. Kennedy, who was 14, saw Helm and “turned to my bass player and said, ‘Let’s do “Atlantic City,”’ which Levon and the Band covered. Afterward she came up to me and said, ‘You have such an amazing voice; keep practicing and do your thing. You’re going to go far.’ She’s doing some great things for me, and I’m really appreciative.
“There’s an unbelievable resource base locally in the music world that branches out everywhere,” Kennedy continued. Forget a Kickstarter campaign; Kennedy plans to pursue the old-fashioned path to success by trying to land a record deal with a major label, which he said is still the best way to get heard on the radio and TV airwaves. “There’s things I love about the past, but there’s amazing advantages now,” he said. He hopes to go on the road soon, which will mean fewer local appearances. So catch him now, while you can.
Connor Kennedy record release party with special guests & Paul Green Rock Academy, Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m., $20/$50, Levon Helm Studios, 160 Plochmann Lane, Woodstock; www.levonhelm.com.