When a music listener is appreciative during a live show, he might do one of several things. He could clap vigorously. Or perhaps snap his fingers like a beatnik. Or even fire up his BiC lighter and wave it in the air (screaming "Freebird" is optional, of course). But when Donald, Ralph and Kenneth Kinsey, better known today as the fiery blues-rock trio The Kinsey Report, saw the lights in their parents' basement/makeshift rehearsal room flicker, they really knew at least someone liked them. And she probably hadn't even read the '50s groundbreaking sexual report.
"My mother would do that to show she liked what we were playing," singer/guitarist Donald says. "If she really dug the groove, she would flash the light." Of course, it also didn't hurt that the brothers had significant musical tutelage under their father, bluesman Lester "Big Daddy" Kinsey, who lent a keen ear to each bent note and vocal wail. "My father was very involved in teaching us ...and he still is," Donald says, noting that the boys, all grown up, still practice regularly in daddy's basement. "And that respect for the both of them will always be there," he says.
Seventy-two-year-old Big Daddy, Kinsey Report fan and critic, shouldn't have much to pick at about his sons' latest record, Smoke and Steel. That's because it's not only by far the band's strongest release in its 15-year history, but also because it marks the brothers' return to Alligator Records, which released the band's full-length debut (1988's Edge of the City) and its sophomore effort the next year (Midnight Drive) before the band moved to Point Blank Records for two more rock-oriented releases.
Smoke and Steel contains a dozen blistering cuts, from raw blues ("Must Be Love," John Fogerty's "Rattlesnake Highway") to topical social commentary ("Code of the Streets," the eloquent "When the Church Burned Down") to laments of bad wimmin ("Dead in Your Tracks," "One Step Back") to sheer fun ("Can't See the Hook"). Hell, there's even a cover of Bob Seger's "Fire Down Below" that will make you entirely forget the original.
"We wanted the album to be more raw, more rootsier than previous records," says Donald. "We wanted to focus on where we were as a band right now, because musically we've gone through some progressions." As for the band's return to the Alligator fold, oldest brother Ralph feels that it's like going home again. "We were looking forward to working with [Alligator founder and Smoke and Steel co-producer] Bruce Iglauer again. He has a great understanding of who we are as musicians. And on this record, I think we've really found our voice."
And though the Kinseys' departure from the label involved a desire to expand beyond the Alligator's mostly traditional electric blues-based sound, they say they now have the freedom to explore other horizons and the support that goes along with that.
Though the brothers officially came together as The Kinsey Report in 1984 (with family friend Ron Price on second guitar), the Kinsey story really begins in the late '60s when teens Donald and Ralph, already talented players, began to gig around their hometown of Gary, Indiana, with their dad. (Donald was even billed for a short time, oddly enough, as "B.B. King Jr."). They disbanded in 1972 when Ralph joined the Air Force, the same year that blues great Albert King recruited Donald as a rhythm guitarist, to appear on two of his Stax records. Next, Donald formed a short-lived heavy metal group called White Lightning, which opened for bands such as Aerosmith, Yes and Jethro Tull.
But Donald's life changed drastically when he met the legendary Bob Marley in 1976, who in turn introduced him to former Wailer Peter Tosh. Kinsey soon played on stage and in the studio with both of them, appearing on such reggae classics as Tosh's Legalize It and Marley's Rastaman Vibration and Babylon by Bus.
"What I learned most from them was discipline," says Donald. "And how to work with a big band. I also took to heart a lot about rhythm. And they opened my eyes to being a [socially conscious] songwriter. I found out that people are really interested in the truth and positivity. I mean, the first date I played with him was at a soccer stadium in Germany for 50,000 people. Music is a powerful thing."
Another thing Donald Kinsey will never forget is the night of November 25, 1976. That's when he, Marley, band members, and family and friends were relaxing at Marley's home in Kingston, Jamaica, when several gunmen burst through the door and began shooting. They were apparently intending to assassinate Marley, who by that time had become a huge political figure in the country. Amazingly, though several people were seriously injured and blood was spilled everywhere, no one was killed. Still, it's a night that Donald relives again and again in his memory. He was near the kitchen with Marley and manager Don Taylor (who took five bullets) when the shooting started.
So when The Kinsey Report formed (with younger brother Kenneth recruited on bass), the band members had already, so to speak, "gone to school." They teamed up with Big Daddy as a live act, and Donald produced his father's debut record, Bad Situation, for the Rooster Blues label in 1985. Head Alligator Iglauer liked what he heard and gave the Kinseys their own shot with Edge of the City.
But despite the brothers' musical past and chops honed on hundreds of tour dates throughout the world over the years, they still travel by bus, driving all night to most gigs. And like other bands' members half their age, they hope for radio play. Unfortunately, The Kinsey Report's combination of rock/blues/funk doesn't usually fit nicely into current radio formats.
"It's something that's bad not only for us, but other 'blues' artists," says Ralph. "And this is supposed to be America's treasured music. My grandmother used to tell my dad that blues was 'reals,' and that's a country way of saying 'reality.' It's the ups and the downs ... but the fact is, we have to tour constantly because the records don't get commercial airplay. Except on some public radio stations."
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Still, when the Kinseys' sound strayed more toward rock, they got backfire from blues purists, though Donald understands the label in a different manner. "I have always had a problem with the term 'rock.' Because, to me, it means a type of energy you bring to a music, rather than [a specific playing style]. But rock music does have that drive. Dad used to always tell us, 'You have to drive the music.' Even if it was slow blues."
But regardless of record sales and radio play, The Kinsey Report has always made its best grades on the live stage. That's where the three brothers lock together musically, spiritually and fraternally. "Once I get on the stage," Donald says, "that's my release. That's the moment I feel free."
Ralph follows up: "Once you hit that stage, everything else kind of just falls away." He also says the band just completed its first shows in Greece, where national and language barriers seemed to simply dissipate. "They knew us, and they had the records, and they really greeted us, and that's what it's all about: connecting and communicating. It's a gratifying feeling that we're doing something that means something to people."
The Kinsey Report plays Friday, April 9, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Call (713)266-9294 for more information.