Mike Keneally may be one of the most criminally underrated musicians in the industry. Spend five minutes listening to this singer/songwriter/musician, and you’ll find yourself asking just one question: why isn’t this guy famous?
Fellow musicians know who Keneally is. Casual music fans may find themselves asking just who that man standing next to Steve Vai or Joe Satriani is, and how is it that he’s able to play the exact same guitar parts as the bandleader, while being equally adept on keyboards? But say Keneally’s name to artists like Adrian Belew, Vernon Reid, or Rob Fetters, and you get a knowing grin. Mike Keneally is a musician’s musician.
Keneally’s stature does not scream “rock star,” which may be one of his best features. He’s the kind of everyman who would stand next to you in a club or sit next to you in a theater and strike up a conversation about the artist you were about to see. He’s an easygoing man with a wicked sense of humor, and a deep knowledge of the art form he loves. Make no mistake about it: Mike Keneally LOVES music. He’s as big a fan as he is a musician. You can’t help but like the guy.
Keneally first came across my musical radar without me knowing it. He was the guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist in Frank Zappa’s legendary 1988 band, dubbed via both the bandleader and CD title The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. This group also produced Zappa albums Make a Jazz Noise Here and Broadway the Hard Way. Anybody with the chops to play in this talented band is worthy of respect. Zappa dubbed Keneally “Evelyn Wood” (after the classic speed-reading course) because he caught on to difficult musical passages so quickly. Still, I’d be lying if I said I recognized Keneally’s playing in this band right away. That would come later.
In 1996, Satriani launched his first-ever G3 tour, which also featured Vai and Eric Johnson. I was particularly taken with Vai’s band. Not only did Steve tear the roof off the place, but he had a co-guitarist playing the exact same parts Vai did, which I was convinced was impossible. This guitarist was also running around the stage like a loon, sporting a lid straight out of The Cat in the Hat. That loon, as it turns out, was Keneally. Not long after, I saw Keneally perform next to Vai in person during the latter’s Ultra Zone tour. The need to pursue Keneally’s music gradually became more and more important.
My first Mike Keneally CD was Dancing, which was released in 2000. Keneally recorded the album with his band, Beer for Dolphins. I must confess: I was somewhat taken aback by this album. My previous exposure to Keneally’s music was in a more or less progressive rock context. I had no idea Keneally had such a keen ear for pop music. Not that his compositions were simple. On the contrary. Even the simplest sounding tunes had at least one section with a moderate to high degree of difficulty.
I was amazed by what I was hearing. That amazement went to the next level a few months later, when I caught Keneally’s band on stage at a small club called the Galaxy in downtown St. Louis. Beer for Dolphins was opening for Ike Willis (another Zappa alum) and Project Object. Keneally’s band performed an absolutely blistering set I got to see and hear from literally two feet away from the man. I was leaning on Mike’s monitor wedge as he played. He even caught me playing a little “air” guitar to “Live in Japan,” which he found more than a little funny. Perhaps that’s why he was kind enough to talk to me for 20 minutes after his set, where he also signed both my copy of Dancing, which I brought to the show with me, and Sluggo, which I bought on the spot from his merchandise table.
The live Keneally experience made it essential to explore the man’s back catalog, which contained incredible albums like hat., Boil that Dust Speck, and Sluggo. The albums helped present “The Full Keneally,” which went well beyond anything I was anticipating. Keneally proved to be comfortable playing in just about any musical setting. Rock, prog, jazz, blues, avant-garde … the man was musically fearless. This little bit of abstract ranks among my favorites.
Keneally’s catalog is expansive. One by one, his CDs continued to land on my media shelves. Regrettably, I purged a few of them during my attempt to digitalize my collection back in 2006. But the CDs have been making their way back to my shelves, slowly but surely. I won’t make that mistake again. To confine myself to one or two Keneally CDs is a musical travesty. There’s too much music to explore not to want to hear it all. Besides, if I skipped a release or two, I might miss out on something beautiful, like this:
As much as I admire Keneally’s abilities in the studio, I have always had a preference for live music. The man doesn’t disappoint, as Guitar Therapy Live and bakin’ @ the potato rank among my favorite live albums. Where else but from the confines of a comfortable club stage can a band just flat-out go for it like this?
As I’ve said, musicians know who Mike Keneally is. That includes one of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time, Andy Partridge of XTC. I nearly lost my mind when I found out the two were making a record together, called Wing Beat Fantastic. I tried not to drown myself in the sea of expectation before hearing the record. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
Keneally is also fun to talk to about music. As it turns out, we are both big Radiohead fans. I remember seeing the little smile on his face when we discussed the opening notes of “Everything in its Right Place.” It was a look that put me at ease, because it made me feel a lot less like a weirdo, because a musician I admire was hearing the same thing I was, in the exact same way. One of these days, I’d like to have an extended conversation with him over a beer or two.
Mike Keneally is one of those musicians everyone needs to know about. He’s simply too talented to ignore. His music is perfect for a club setting, but it deserves to be heard in amphitheaters and arenas. Until that happens, take some time to seek out his music. You won’t regret it. Not for one second.
Oh, yeah … Mike wrote the foreword for my forthcoming book. Did I mention that he’s a really nice guy?
(Special thanks to Christophe Pauly for the cover photo!)