John McKenna Band
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John McKenna Band

Kansas City, Missouri, United States | INDIE

Kansas City, Missouri, United States | INDIE
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Jeff Larison took up the pedal steel guitar more than three years ago, and he hasn’t regretted a minute of it. Except when it frustrates him, which is often.

“It’s really kind of a pain-in-the-ass instrument,” he said. “But you can find a lot more gigs playing pedal steel around here. Guitar players are a dime a dozen.”

Larison plays pedal steel and lap steel in two bands: the Blackbird Revue and the John McKenna Band. Saturday night both bands will be part of the four-band Steel Show at RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. The other two: Dead Voices and Sara Swenson and the Pearl Snaps. All four bands feature a pedal steel or lap steel player or both.

Like most pedal steel players, Larison fell in love with its inimitable sound.

“It’s so haunting,” he said. “I like a lot of bands with steel players. Ray Lamontagne has a great pedal steel player, Eric Heywood, and Jon Graboff played with Ryan Adams when he had the Cardinals — guys like that. So I bit the bullet and bought one. St. Louis is like the global hub for steel players.

“So I drove over, bought a used one and it has been trial by fire ever since. I took a lesson, but mostly I mess around at home.”

The pedal steel is a network of pedals, levers and strings. The instrument gets its haunting, weepy sound from the manipulation of the strings by the pedals and levers, which are maneuvered by the player’s knees and feet. A musician once told me that playing the pedal steel guitar the way it is supposed to be played is like trying to operate four sewing machines at once.

“That’s a good analogy,” Larison said. “It’s like playing the harp. You play triads, three strings at a time, but there are certain strings you can’t touch because they’re not in the right key or they’re not the correct note. Plus you have three pedals on the floor, like a piano.

“They change the pitch of certain strings, and you get that crying sound when you roll on and off those pedals and they bend the strings. You also have four knee levers that move to the left and right that also bend the strings. You can lose your mind trying to keep track of which lever or pedal bends which string.

“You can start to get really creative when you learn how to play chords with different combinations of pedals and levers. Those old country guys are masters of that. They really know how to get around on it.”

Kansas City has its own “secret society” of pedal steel players, Larison said. Many of them are part of the Heartland Steel Guitar Association, which organizes monthly performances and jam sessions at places such as the Northtown Opry, 1419 Swift St. in North Kansas City. Visit heartlandsga.org for more information.

“There are some great older players in town,” Larison said. “Russ Weaver is the guy. Whenever Jon Graboff would come to town, he’d take lessons from Russ. I’m 34, so when I play with them, I feel like one of the young guys. But a lot of them are amazing, so I also feel like an amateur.”

That won’t daunt or deter him, said Larison, who is determined to keep evolving and improving.

“You have to be really committed,” he said. “For one thing, it’s expensive. A good used pedal steel will cost you $1,500. But I would love to carry the torch and keep getting better. It’s fun. But it’s also frustrating.”

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/04/25/3573819/celebrating-the-warmth-of-steel.html#storylink=cpy - Kansas City Star


In the Old Testament book of Job, after a description of the flawless title character, who is about to get screwed out of his own skin, Satan pays a visit to God.

The Lord said to Satan, "Where have you come from?"

Satan answered the Lord, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it."

I often feel like the wanderin' accuser when I spend a weekend out, looking for bands to inspire my pen. Oddly, this past weekend took on a religious cast, thanks to a death-metal art opening on Friday, followed on Saturday by a Christian pop-rock show at the Brick.

I'd been looking forward to the painting exhibition by Jay Norton.Named after a Hüsker Dü song, Dead Set on Destruction promised nine scenes from Norton's explorations of death-metal concerts. In the mosh-pit vignettes, wild-eyed dudes careen off each other in rock-and-roll catharsis. In the solo portraits, freaks in gothic makeup, adorned with upside-down crosses and pentagrams, peer wolflike at the viewer.

Also that Friday night at the Pelea de Gallos gallery on Southwest Boulevard were the driftwoodlike creations of Norton's friend and fellow artist Mark Hennessy, the poet and former lead singer of Lawrence grunge contender Paw. Despite the presence of more beer than I've ever seen at an opening and plenty of pagan symbols, the event was much like any normal Crossroads gathering.

The only person who appeared to be invested in the subculture was Nathaniel Dhust, a devilishly handsome rake with longish black hair and the duds to match. The DJ overlord of Elektro Nekro Gothic Night at Davey's Uptown on Mondays couldn't have been more genial discussing the paintings — graven images of a movement that spans from Norway to Brazil to Independence and beyond.

Around 9:30 p.m., Hennessy's current band, 1950DA, set up outside the gallery. Unapologetically grunge, the four-piece dished out searing, detuned riffs and flannel-scorching fury — all wreathed by Hennessy's raving, guttral howl. It was all I could do to keep myself from smashing a beer bottle against a nearby corrugated-steel fence.

The next night was way different. A band called John McKenna and the Free Prescriptions was playing at the Brick. McKenna's MySpace page had impressed me — his mature style had the mellow coating of Elliott Smith with a sophisticated, McCartney filling. Before long, I was downloading his new solo album, Stone Cold Summer, free, courtesy of McKenna. Why had I not heard of him before? Probably because I don't go to his church.

There was talk of Jesus right when I entered the Brick — and not from people who are likely to meet Him someday. In discussing the $7 cover, one wag, who was not staying for the show, said, "All the money goes to Jesus." He turned to the room of mostly seated, mostly older people and said, "Who here loves Jesus?" Then he left the club and went straight to hell.

It was only 9:30 (again!), but I'd already missed the first two acts, Greg LaFollette and Waterdeep, the latter of which I knew to be Christian. Journeyman drummer Billy Brimblecom, a Free Prescription for the night, told me that his first recording session was for McKenna when bonny Billy was only 14 years old.

Now in his 30s, McKenna looked alt preacher man in his black suit and casual fedora. His band included three high-class ladies, in cocktail dresses, on backup vocals, each of whom was married to a band member.

McKenna's songs are smooth, attentive to melody and — get this — happy. One song is based on the kids' book Go, Dog. Go! that, McKenna said, you've read to your kids unless you simply don't care about them. The ditty's called "Play, Dog, Play" and is one infectious kibble. In addition to the chaste lyric We fall asleep after we talk into the night, the song "Stay In My Mind" boasts the line One glass of red wine gives me a headache. But I know McKenna's not the abstemious type — he accepted a Tanqueray and tonic from this here devil after the show.

In the Bible, God allows Satan to kill off Job's entire family, ruin him financially, and cover his body with sores. We will not be doing this to John McKenna. As long as he keeps playing, of course. - The Pitch Weekly


Sat­urday’s mu­sic event at the Brick, 1522 McGee, was a tribute to steel gui­tar. All five bands that performed incorporated a lap steel or ped­al steel gui­tar into at least a few of their songs.

The bands: the Blackbird Revue, John McKenna & the Blue Sea Fish­er­men’s Union, Rex Ho­bart & the Honky Tonk Standards, Sara Swen­son & the Pearl Snaps and the Dead Voic­es Each of the bands brought a differ­ent style of mu­sic to the stage — modern bluegrass, honky-tonk country, rus­tic folk/pop, country-folk, rock. Sub­sequently, each gave a differ­ent voice to one of the most evocative and complex in­stru­ments in popular mu­sic. One of those players, Jeff Lar­i­son, sat in with three of the bands, bur­nish­ing a few of McKenna’s handsome compo­sitions, some of which resembled the sounds of the lat­est Decemberists album: a mix of country, folk and rock. Darryl Logue plays ped­al steel for Ho­bart and his band (he does the same for Miss Major and Her Minor Mood Swings). Logue has been a ped­al steel player since the 1970s. He joined Ho­bart’s band

about four years ago af­ter tiring of playing too many Top 40 country songs. Ho­bart’s style is more tra­ditional country, whether he’s sing­ing one of his own tear-jerkers or covering George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” On those tunes, Logue wrought the weepy, lonesome sound for which the ped­al steel is most fa­mous — “squeezing the tears” out of a song, as I once heard it de­scribed. “It’s a di­verse in­stru­ment,” he said lat­er. “You can make it sound like a horn section, you can make it sound like a piano or you can make it sound like a Telecast­er.”

He did a lit­tle of each, laying down some jaunty leads, when the band impro­vised an in­stru­mental while Ho­bart replaced a string on his gui­tar. Swen­son’s band dou­bled the an­te — adding ped­al steel and lap steel to its arrange­ments, for which she de­clared her band the un­of­ficial “winner” of the steel event. Both in­stru­ments suit her intro­spective songs, sev­eral of which are melancholy and winsome folk ballads. Lar­i­son’s steel gives them a rich and reward­ing old-time country fla­vor. He is a rel­ative newcom­er to the ped­al steel world, having started it about four years ago. It is, he said, just as complicated as he heard it would

be.

“You can’t strum like a gui­tar, you have to pick or pluck, like a harp,” he said. “Plus there are foot ped­als and knee lev­ers. The learning nev­er re­ally stops. You can play one chord about 10 differ­ent ways. That’s why so many of the great players are old­er guys. You need to put in the years of practice and playing.” And why did he start? “I just fell in love with it, with the sound.” He’s not the only one. Logue said af­terwards that find­ing ped­al steel gigs isn’t too hard. “There are lots of great gui­tar players around,” he said, “but not so many ped­al steel players.” The Dead Voic­es had to deal with that for part of its set, entertain­ing the crowd with­out their player, Mike Stover, who was in transit, having played lap steel at an earli­er gig, giving an­oth­er band the inimitable sound some of us can’t get enough of. Ped­al steel jam

The Heart­land Steel Gui­tar As­sociation hosts a monthly jam ses­sion the third Sunday of ev­ery month at the Northtown Opry, 1419 Swift in North Kansas City. Admis­sion is free. Do­nations are accepted. This month’s ses­sion is from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Ped­al steel, lap steel and dobro players are wel­come. - Kansas City Star


Few things are more beautiful than the aching croon of lap steel. In fact, John McKenna and Sara Swenson are so bewitched by the sound, they've curated an entire show devoted to the instrument. The first annual Steel Show at the Brick includes cameos from Darryl Logue (of Rex Hobart and the Honky Tonk Standards), Mike Stover (of Dead Voices) and Jeff Larison (of Sara Swenson and the Pearl Snaps, John McKenna and Blue Sea Fishermen's Union, and the Blackbird Revue). We caught up with creator John McKenna for the lowdown on the event.

The Pitch: What prompted the creation of the Steel Show?

John McKenna: The idea stemmed from a conversation we had about the dearth of steel players in the KC area, since in actuality, Sara [Swenson] and I have the same steel player, Jeff Larison, in each of our bands. While we could think of lots of talented drummers, bassists, guitarists, etc., none of us could name another steel player in KC. In fact, it was a challenge to find enough steel players to make this first steel show even come into fruition. So this is a first attempt to start bringing the local steel players out of the woodwork. We are eager to see if this show grabs the attention of some other talented steel players that are perhaps unknown, or further out in the region, who may want to join us next year.

How do the bands in the lineup use it differently to complement the band's sound?

The bands we selected for the steel show this year are all part of bands shaped by singer-songwriters. So, to a large degree, the steel player's role has been to find ways to enhance and complement original songs. For next year, we are hoping to find other varieties of steel-player talent. The show is set to last for six hours. It sort of worked out that the bands were added to the set as they committed to the show. The first band, the Blackbird Revue, was the natural opener for the show because their well crafted songs have soft, mellifluous harmonies that belong at the beginning. Dead Voices will close it down.

What do you love about steel?

The pedal steel is such a unique instrument. While it has historically been predominantly found in country music, pedal steel also provides a unique sound for bands like Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Wilco, Amos Lee, etc. While pedal steel can be found in many bands, few people may even recognize it is there or be able to differentiate it from the guitar. It adds so much texture and "shimmer" to songs and can also provide haunting, atmospheric tones. - The Pitch Weekly


Discography

John McKenna Band - Beautiful Dangerous
John McKenna - Stone Cold Summer
John McKena - 1969 Gypsy

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Bio

This band is about the songs…
John McKenna is constantly writing songs- he can’t help himself. This has always been the case going as far back as his days writing and playing guitar with Huckleberry and later Red Guitar. McKenna’s mind tends to accompany passing reflections with gloriously blue melodies. His lyrics are honest- a huge reason why fans of his music connect with what he’s trying to say. John’s version of truth taps into what most folks want to hear- a message that suggests everything will work out in the end. Somehow it will be okay.
The John McKenna band was born out of a conversation between McKenna and Jeff Larison (Blackbird Revue, Oriole Post, Sara Swenson, Red Guitar). Ryan Green (Satellite Soul) was quickly brought into the discussion and the three eventually started working on old and new McKenna tunes. Todd Way (Beggar’s Table, Satellite Soul) was brought into play bass, but it wasn’t long before he began to play a lot more than that- namely piano and some guitar from time to time. Eventually, the sound was rounded out by an old friend of everyone in the band, Allison Cloud. Brought in to sing, she has also been known to play some percussion- her red tambourine, once considered too flashy, is now accepted by everyone involved. Much to the drummer’s delight…
Beautiful Dangerous is a small collection of songs- approximately 20 minutes from beginning to end. The music, although mellow in nature, carries with it an undeniable intensity brought forth by every member of the band. Musically, this EP is driven by Larison and Way- both possess an uncanny ability to play anything with strings. Electrics, acoustics, piano, lap and pedal steel- all make their way onto this recording and were most likely played by either Jeff or Todd. Allison’s voice comes across as John’s sweet, but also haunting conscious, never letting him forget what should be said and what should be held for another day. Green’s ability to hold everything together from the drum kit gives the songs the backbone they need to stand on their own.