As the leader of Steppenwolf for a half-century, John Kay could never completely escape the cycle of album-tour, album-tour, all while struggling at times to keep the mercurial band together. It’s understandable then that, as preoccupied as they were, his isn’t among the first groups you visualize when it comes to philanthropic performances from that era.
“I’m a little bit of a late bloomer in this area,” Kay says. “There were people during those fifty years of Steppenwolf activity who played every goddamn benefit for every cause under the sun. With the Wolf, we were almost insular. Things after a while did not go well with labels, lawsuits, management, internal friction. It is really more in recent years that I’ve had an inclination towards what’s going on here and how can one help.”
Kay is stepping up indeed, in this case to help the historic Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California, his area of residence. On Friday, a live-stream of a recently-recorded performance Kay did at the theatre will be available on a pay-per-view basis starting at 8 PM Pacific for a 72-hour period. Proceeds go to the Lobero to help it fend off the financial hardship caused by the pandemic. And those who watch can also donate beyond the PPV price to help even more.
“I’m very fond of this particular venue,” Kay told American Songwriter in an interview to promote the show. “I consider it to be one of the jewels of our community. Many others feel the same. For various circumstances, I have more time on my hands than I counted on. I thought, what can be done that might be beneficial? That is when the conversation veered to OK, how about a streaming performance?”
Kay is excited for people to see the final product. “I was really quite pleased with the results,” he says. “The audio is good. The different camera angles were interesting and keep you from getting bored with seeing one guy from one perspective for over an hour. My performance is similar to what I had done last year in various places. That followed on the heels of Steppenwolf’s last performance in October of 2018.”
After Steppenwolf, one of the first bands to go mainstream with a hard rock sound thanks to massive hits like “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” called it a day, Kay felt a bit adrift in terms of his next move, at least until he remembered the beginnings of his career.
“I was sort of saying, ‘Ok, what do I want to do now?’ Kay recalls. “Over the course of time, I had recorded solo albums. In fact, I have written a handful of songs in the last two or three years that I never bothered to record. I was harking back to my early days, which preceded Steppenwolf. That was the early 60s, which was during the American folk music revival. At that time, I was bouncing back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo and Los Angeles. At various folk venues across the country, I was learning from the masters. I was following, like so many my age with a guitar in my hand, the masters of the blues, and we were also highly motivated by singer/songwriters of our own generation who had something to say.”
“Obviously, there was Dylan, but others like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Richard Farina. These were people who wrote about what we were dealing with back then. The draft that could land you in Vietnam and the fact that the civil rights situation was very dire and dangerous. When you experience a tribal event, when you are one among tens of thousands of your own age group that are listening to others of your own age up on stage expressing our concerns in their songs, that was a very powerful experience. When you went home, even if you lived in Ames, Iowa and were the only kid on the block that cared about such matters, you knew you were not alone. That was extremely galvanizing and powerful.”
Kay began working on a live set comprised of both blues standards, reworked versions of songs he had written for Steppenwolf, and his solo material. When he concocted the show, he used a performance that affected him deeply as a template.
“My experiences last year, when it was sort of a trial balloon, I enjoyed it,” he says. “The audiences, when I’d talk to them after the show, said something that I was particularly keen to hear, because that was my objective: ‘You are a storyteller, both in terms of what you said between the songs and the lyrics of the songs.’ I had deliberately prepared the presentation along those lines because of something I experienced decades ago that left a mark on me, and that was to see Bill Withers at the Troubadour when his first album came out.”
“He was just like that photograph of his first album, with his lunch box there, just a down-to-Earth guy. He would sit on a stool and say something. They weren’t long-winded stories. They were almost like short stories or even anecdotes. Like ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ he set up that song by giving you a little bit of a spoken introduction that gave you an insight. So when the song started, you were primed, from the first vocal line on, to be completely engaged. That worked so well for what he was doing.”
The experiences Kay enjoyed in playing his solo shows for fans in theatres like the Lobero spurred him to act. “The arenas were built for sports,” he explains. “You have to overpower the place. Everything is about lighting. That does not keep people from being distracted by whatever else is going on. For certain types of music, smaller and more intimate is definitely better.”
“How do they survive? How do the venues remain viable until the time comes that things normalize to the extent that they can feature performances there again? There are tons of small venues and clubs and the like that may never, ever be able to reopen. It’s doubtful whether they survive. These venues are where the baby acts start. It’s really quite a horrific thing.”
Kay’s performance will hopefully go a long way to helping the Lobero Theatre. He was happy to do it, even if the logistics upped the nervousness factor a bit. “If I do a solo show, and all of a sudden my hands turn into carrots and the chords don’t come out right, I move on,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not being captured for posterity, the audience hasn’t seemed to notice it, they’re having a good time, all is well, don’t worry about it.”
“Now you’re up there thinking two things. First, as many people as possible will hear and see this. Keep that in mind as you perform, because you’re not just playing in a broom closet. There are people who will watch this. The other thing is, if you do mess up, it’s being recorded. It will be there. It’s carved in stone. It takes a song or two before you do not preoccupy your mind with those thoughts. You push that to the back of your cranium and concentrate on doing a decent performance.”
Tickets for the show are $15 and can be purchased now at the Lobero Theatre’s Website.