Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkies

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A scoville is a unit of measure that gauges the tongue-searing scorch of a chili pepper. Now, with the arrival of Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkies, the term also plays a role in establishing a new bar for incendiary modern blues — music that echoes the genre’s deep past, but reverberates into the future with daring arrangements, high energy and a keen, lean ’n’ dirty sound.

Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkies“It’s important to keep our approach fresh and immediate,” says Kennedy, whose adventurous life spent ricocheting around the world playing guitar fuels the spirit of his debut album.

“When we were recording we played songs no more than two or three times, and when cut somebody else’s numbers, like Otis Rush’s ‘Ain’t Enough Comin’ In’ or Tom Waits’ ‘Hold On,’ we made up our own structures on the spot. I even wrote songs on the drive up to the studio, to keep things exciting.”

The thrill of those sessions blasts out of the eponymous Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkies. Kennedy’s opening “Devil Walk” sets the pace with a blustery Texas boogaloo that blends fat rhythm riffs with prickly solos and fills, and bends the lines between guitar heroics and pure dance floor butt-waggin’. His time on the New York City punk scene colors the spare, elegant “Blue Garden,” with its percolating beat, space-age keyboard melody and perfectly balanced six-string chug. And the uncanny spontaneity of his trio — which includes bassist Mike Dunn and drummer Bruce Martin — translates the Rush tune into a charging urban strut and, abetted by Kennedy’s bold resonator guitar picking, reshapes “Hold On” into a Delta lullaby.

Kennedy’s songwriting draws on all sorts of elements from his past: his family, his love of fiery foods, the colorful collection of characters and places he’s known during 45 years of living a rich musical life that culminates now in his first album as a bandleader.

“My mother does have a blue garden at her home on Martha’s Vineyard,” he explains. “And ‘Jalapeno’ with ‘the house with no front door’ in ‘Devil Walk’ is Jalapeno Charlie, a guy I used to know in Austin whose house literally had no front door.”

One of the most important figures in Kennedy’s past is the dynamic bluesman John Campbell. They met while Kennedy was living in Manhattan in the late ’80s. Campbell was a salesman at Matt Umanov Guitars in Greenwich Village, and their friendship sprang up around their mutual love of blues.

After Campbell was signed to Elektra Records, Kennedy joined him as guitar foil and co-writer. They traveled the world for three years, playing as many as 250 dates annually and sharing stages with a roster of blues and roots legends that included Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and the Black Crowes, Johnny Shines, Dr. John and Jessie Mae Hemphill.

“John was a very inspiring performer,” Kennedy says. “Not just a powerful guitarist and singer, but amazingly funny and charming, like a cross between Link Wray and Leslie Howard. It was impossible not to be taken with the guy, and he was a great example of how to conduct yourself on and off the stage.”

“Dr. Midnight” on Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkies is a tribute to Campbell, who died unexpectedly in 1993.

“I had a dream where John came to me and told me he was not dead, but was hiding out somewhere,” Kennedy explains. “Hence the lines, ‘Hey man, I never really left/ I’m just holding down the graveyard shift’ in the first verse. The weird thing about it is, Jimmy Pettit, who played bass with me in John’s band, had the same dream.”

After Campbell’s death Kennedy decided to pursue his own dreams in Austin, where he joined local linchpin Doyle Bramhall, Sr.’s group. The three years Kennedy spent in the Live Music Capitol of the World with Bramhall and others, plus his time with Campbell, had a substantial impact on his vivid guitar style.

“We did a lot of gigs with Jimmie Vaughan, and Doyle’s other guitarist, Robin Sylar, was an excellent player, too,” Kennedy relates. “They often played with their fingers and just palmed their picks. John had used a thumb pick and finger picks, and played with his fingers. It became obvious that if I was going to develop the same control over dynamics and tone, fingerstyle was the way to go.” That approach plus heavy gauge strings and tube amps opened up wide ‘n’ loud feed Kennedy’s edgy, hard-chiseled six-string attack.

“Getting my National steel guitar from a junk shop in New York also helped me define myself musically,” he allows. “Nationals are not easy to play, so you really need to sharpen your focus, but they have a fantastic sound that takes you back to the core of the earliest blues, and that inspires all kinds of ideas.”

Kennedy’s musical convictions began taking form during his teenage years in Princeton, New Jersey. “As a townie, I could get into all the concerts at the University for free,” he recounts. “I saw Albert King, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, James Cotton… I really related most to the blues. My friends and me formed a band that was similar to the Allman Brothers, with two guitars, double drum kits, and keyboards. We were really good and won some battles of the bands, which were popular at the University.”

Shortly after meeting Butterfield and the then 17-year-old Buzzy Feinton backstage, Kennedy abandoned his own college plans and left home for Los Angeles at age 16 armed with a guitar his mother had purchased for him. He drifted back and forth across the country, between the West Coast and home, occasionally living in college dorm lounges while playing in various groups.

He alighted in Boston in the late 1970s, a time when bands like the Cars and cult punk legends DMZ were emerging from the underground. “But I was playing in a R&B revue in some pretty tough clubs,” he says. “Sometimes guys in the band would get carted off stage by the cops during gigs for pimping or car theft. I had guns pulled on me couple times. Finally I decided to move to western Massachusetts out in the country.”

There he joined the Bailey Brothers blues band and spent the next few years constantly driving a circuit from Washington, D.C. to Canada and back in his ’69 Coup de Ville, where the group often slept as well. Burnout set in hard, and on the last day of 1979 Kennedy moved to New York City, where the nascent punk scene beckoned.

He played in a series of bands, opening for everybody from the Ramones to Foreigner — even signing a record deal that took him to Los Angeles again before fizzling out.

Save for his Austin years, New York has remained his home since then, and the blues has remained his musical love.

“There’s something about the pace and sound of the city, and the idea that it’s open all night, that I find very inspiring,” he explains.

Indeed, the bustling, eclectic vibe of the Big Apple seems part of the heartbeat of Zonder Kennedy and the Scoville Junkie.

“I was walking down the street in the East Village recently,” he relates. “The wind was blowing and it was 20-degrees. There was a homeless guy, wrapped in a blanket, passed out on the street with two books in his lap: Ezra Pound and Keith Richards’ new autobiography. I thought, ‘I guess literature and music will get you through the lean times.’ And that’s an example of the unpredictable things you see nearly every day in New York.”

But his decision to finally release his first album as a leader was purely personal. “I had my daughter late in life and I want to convey my art to her,” he begins. “And my wife, who is my biggest supporter and a collaborator — she co-wrote ‘Blue Garden’ — put her foot down and insisted I make this record and promote it, unlike the many recordings I have made over the years and not followed through.

“I’ve really been a live player for my entire career,” Kennedy continues. “I love the excitement of improvising, creating music for people right on the spot. So it’s taken a long time for me to document what I can do, but I feel the time is right and that this album represents where I come from and where I am going.”

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