Record company politics and family adversity took their toll for a while on the Kinsey Report, who at their peak in the late ’80s were arguably the hottest and most versatile of all the contemporary blues bands. A decision to join Virgin Records’ newly created Pointblank division in 1991 didn’t yield the anticipated commercial dividends, and the three musician brothers were hit even harder by the death of their mother, followed by the death of guitarist Donald Kinsey’s wife.
But the trio has persevered, and they’ve just returned with the first new Kinsey Report album in five years. Smoke and Steel (Alligator) shows a renewed commitment to reignite the fire and zeal that characterized their finest releases, Edge of the City and Midnight Drive.
“It’s good to be back on the road,” says bassist Ken Kinsey, speaking by phone from San Diego, where the band is currently in the midst of its West Coast tour. They’ll make a Nashville stop this Tuesday, and things are indeed looking up again for them. The Kinseys are attracting the critical attention and interest that greeted their initial entry onto the blues scene in 1987.
Brothers Donald, Kenneth, and drummer Ralph Kinsey were literally born into the blues: Their father, Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey, was a regional favorite throughout Chicago and Gary, Ind., for many years, though his full-time job as a steelworker kept him from doing the recording and touring necessary to break out nationally. Instead, he played mostly weekend gigs and helped ground his sons in the basics of Delta and Chicago blues. As a leader, he issued some strong releases of his own in the ’80s and early ’90s.
After spending time in various ventures backing their father, the brothers began developing their own ensemble. Aside from their strong blues foundation, each man had his own musical interests, especially Donald, who spent several years backing reggae legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and bluesman Albert King. Ken Kinsey also dabbled in reggae, and he says that the music’s influence carried over into the band’s blues compositions.
“The reggae impact mainly comes from some of the conscious lyrics; we wanted to see the same type of interest in social issues that’s reflected in reggae come across in our blues songs. We’ve always tried to reflect our lives in our music, and not just do ‘my baby left me’ material.
“It’s important that people understand we’re now doing songs in the blues that are an indication of our lives and our struggles. If we’d been born in the time of Muddy Waters, then we’d be doing songs his way, but we’re in the ’90s, not the ’50s.”
Kinsey is equally frank about what happened to the band during its short-lived tenure at Pointblank. “At the time, we were real hot, and Alligator told us that there was only so much that they could do for us. The Pointblank people were just getting started, and they were really looking at Albert Collins, but they also were talking to us and Larry McCray. They offered us the kind of money and the shot at major-label exposure that we felt we needed, so we seized the opportunity.”
The trio willingly made a few concessionsas most every performer who signs to a major label must do. As Ken Kinsey remembers, Pointblank wanted to expand the group’s listener base, “so we did what they asked. We got Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes to do some songs with us, we recorded straight-up rock songs, we did reggae numbers.” In the end, though, they ended up with an album that “was just too diverse; we were all over the park.
“The second one we tried to take in a more rock direction. Then [Pointblank] didn’t follow up on what they promised us in terms of promotion. So we ended up just out there; the people who’d heard us before weren’t happy, and we weren’t reaching the other audiences that we were supposed to be getting.”
After severing their relationship with the label, the brothers languished a while, then began a series of carefully planned engagements in selected blues clubs. A gig at the House of Blues led to a chance meeting with an Alligator Records executiveand a reunion with the company that launched their career.
Smoke and Steel will reassure those who lost faith in the band during its Pointblank period. The record offers patented issues numbers like “Code of the Streets” and “When the Church Burned Down,” along with stirring testimonials like “Loved Ones” and hard-edged blues tunes like “Time Is Running Out” and “Fire Down Below.” Guitarist Donald sounds especially torrid, while the vocals are alternately passionate, fiery, and exuberant.
When asked for an assessment of the current climate for blues artists, Ken Kinsey is neither completely pessimistic nor overly optimistic. “In one sense, you can say things are beginning to change a bit; [we’re] getting away from that stereotype people used to have that you had to be an old man sitting on a stool to sing the blues. It’s crazy that some people feel you have to wait until you’re 65 or 70 before you should make a good living, that then you’ve paid your dues. John Lee Hooker should have been making money all along, instead of having to wait until five or six years ago and then have rock guys on his albums.
“I’m part of the generation that’s been out here a long time and has always tried to keep the blues reflective of our situation. After all this time, people come up to me and say, ‘We’ve bought your albums, and we’re glad you’re still around.’ We’re ready now to hit hard, to keep things rolling, and to keep bringing the music to the people. We feel grateful that we’re still here, and we’re happy that there’s still interest in what we do.”
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