"I don’t want the blues to become Supermodels with Auto-tune. The blues doesn’t need stylists."
Kennan Shaw: Bass Lover Blues
A true veteran musician Kennan has play bass since fifth grade. He’s toured the world with Sudden Fun, Danny Click, John Lee Hooker Jr., and Candye Kane.
He’s shared the stage with artists as diverse as The Ramones and Etta James, and his signature fretless bass has worked the stage with Country, Zydeco, Funk, Rock, and of course, Blues bands.
Although he’s lived most of his life in California, Kennan has developed a great love of all things New Orleans, and spends as much time playing - and eating - there as he can!
He once took a lesson from Ray Brown, and played with The Shirelles in front of several thousand people. He has also been thrown out of just about every nightclub on Sunset Strip at one time or another.
Kennan, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?
First of all, when I was a ten year old schoolboy violinist, my music teacher was Jeff Neighbor, who played bass in the band The Joy of Cooking. One day he said “You’re tall. You should play bass.” So the rest is all his fault! Couple of years later, there was a kid named Tony Conley around the corner from me who was a wicked guitarist, and who’s band played in his patio sometimes. Our parents hung out, so I was around him a lot, and just idolized him. I remember watching his band, and just feeling the bass player’s SVT in my chest, and thinking “I didn’t know you could DO that!”
Photo by Philippe Guy
What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first gigs, outside of school bands, was with an Elvis Impersonator. I can remember playing “Hound Dog”, “All Shook Up” and some others here and there. School dances and Talent Shows.
I was always learning songs, away in my room with my record player. Maybe more than anything, learning HOW to learn songs; pick out chord changes, find the bass line, and figure out how it worked together. Taking what little I knew about musical theory and use it to figure out why the stuff John Paul Jones was playing worked against the chord changes! The live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” by the Rolling Stones? I wore that record out!
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does music offered you?
At its deepest level, blues comes straight from the heart. It’s not about technique, theory, fashion, or accomplishment; it beats like a human heart. The blues has also become the Universal musical language. The U.S.’s gift to the world; I can walk into a club in any country in the world, and be able to play some form of blues with local musicians. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.
Music has been the biggest influence in my life. Most of the cool places I’ve been to, most of the true friends I have, most of the crazy adventures, and even most of the trouble I’ve gotten into are directly related to the fact that I’m a musician!
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
I listen. I see pictures of myself playing and I look so serious! I’m actually having a great time, but I’m listening to everything; drums, guitar, singer; whatever is going on. I can follow the chords, keeps tabs on the rhythm, and make sure I’m playing dynamically, even if I’m playing unfamiliar material. I know that regardless of what else is going on, I’ve got to play the role of bass, and keep it all together. Support, compliment, and protect! I’m the frame on the beautiful painting!
What characterize the philosophy of Kennan Shaw’ sound?
Don’t make a mess in the lows! If the bass has big, low, wooly tone, it can mask a lot of other sounds, because of the nature of low frequency sound waves. When you fill those lows, everyone else has to play louder to hear themselves, and then the volume gets out of hand. I try to keep my tone in the Low Mids range. This leaves space for the bass drums beneath me, and helps keep things clean, tone-wise.
On my Fretless Precision, I can go from an almost upright bass sound, to a tight, articulated tone, just by moving my right hand around. Flatwound strings keep the whole thing deep yet not fuzzy.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I think it’s all ahead of me. I expect great things to happen every week! It’s like the quote from Alice in Wonderland; “Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”
Photo by Philippe Guy
What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which is the funniest story from those?
There’s nothing better than when a festival has a big jam built into it. I was playing in Lugano, Switzerland a few years ago with Danny Click, and at the end of the three day festival, there was a huge jam on the main stage, and I remember being up there with Danny, and Diunna Greenleaf and Jonn Richardson from Houston, and a drummer from Mississippi, an organ player from North Carolina…people from all over, and we were really burnin’ through something, solos flying left and right and I remember just having so much fun! Then suddenly I was caught in the moment, of that song, of these people on stage, and then remembering there were also several thousand people there enjoying all this too, in Switzerland at 3 in the morning! Beautiful.
The real payoff for what we do is that occasionally we get to play - and I mean play like children - with some really, really good musicians. That’s the Universal Language.
Just today we got the sad news that Michael Burks had died, and my first thought was of the jam after a festival some years ago where I got to play with Michael and his great drummer Popcorn, and how gentle and sweet a man he was. I don’t take those moments for granted.
Are there any memories from Candye Kane, which you’d like to share with us?
Candye’s life is an open book; there are no surprises to learn from me. Sometimes I don’t think people realize or think about how hard she works. There’s nothing too glamorous about driving all over in a van everyday to play shows, but we work a lot more than a lot of bands.
You have open act with many artists (Ten Years After, Cramps, John Cale & Nico, Etta James, Johnny Winter and many others.) It must be hard, but which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you?
The biggest experience came from one of the first really big gigs I ever did. When I was 19, the band I was playing with got hired to be the pick up band for a Shirelle’s gig at a sold out show in a large outdoor amphitheater. Their manager just told us “Buy the Greatest Hits record and learn all those songs.” So we did; “Soldier Boy”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, all of them. Ten minutes before the show, we’re ushered into the Shirelle’s dressing room, and they go over the set list and change all the keys!
Years before, at a festival with my school jazz band, I went to a clinic with Jazz Bass legend, Ray Brown. There were two lessons I learned from Ray; 1.) Nobody will know it’s a mistake unless you make the “mistake face”, and 2.) You don’t know a song until you can play it in any key. Walking onstage in front of thousands of people with the Shirelle’s, both lessons came in very handy!
Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?
I’m really fortunate, in that I’ve met a lot of musicians who have inspired me! Just last week I got to talk bass for a half an hour with Larry Taylor, and it was awesome!
I guess, historically, I’d love to hang out with Dragonetti. He was the first virtuoso bassist. Until he came along in the late 1700’s the bass was a fairly dull instrument, but he was so good that Beethoven himself wrote real bass parts for him to play. He must have been a madman! It would be great to pull him into the present day and show him the evolution that he essentially started! Give him a Jazz Bass and a SVT!
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?
One reason I love the blues is that there are no secrets; everything is laid bare for all to see. The innovators and the Masters all left examples for others to follow and build upon. It’s easy to get schooled, but the learning is up to you.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
I think people grow into the blues. A lot of people, as they grow older, get a little tired of the standard rock clichés. As your life changes, your musical tastes change too, and the blues is a natural progression up the musical evolutionary ladder! The blues just makes sense! It encompasses joy, frustration, sadness and triumph. Plus, the blues community has become a very welcoming thing; the line between performer and fan isn’t very big at all. There are always events or festivals that bring everyone together.
My wish for the blues is that it keeps that spirit. Blues isn’t mainstream. The Blues Awards aren’t on network television. Blues singers aren’t going to be on the cover of the Time magazine, or even the National Inquirer. Probably never even Rolling Stone. And that’s okay. It’s a small, intimate club. Look at Country Music; hugely popular, and really just a shell of it’s former self. These days Cash, Haggard, Willie and Jones wouldn’t be pretty enough to even get a record contract. I don’t want the blues to become Supermodels with Auto-tune.
The blues doesn’t need stylists.
Do you remember anything fanny or interesting from the Jam nights?
Running jams is a great way to make a little money, and keep a local high-profile, but most of the time you’re backing up musicians who just aren’t as good. You can really lose your mind if you start letting it get to you. I know I burnt out on it badly a few years ago, but a change in attitude saved me; now I just think of it as a gift. If I’m playing with people at jam nights, and it’s not great, I think of my playing as a gift to the other players. “Here we go, we’re in this together so let’s have some fun.” Otherwise you get the dead “can’t wait until this is over” stare.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your work with John Lee Hooker Jr?
We had played at a Festival in Germany, and over breakfast the next morning, I struck up a conversation with a guy who turned out to be Chris Jagger, who’s got a really good Zydeco band, and is Mick’s brother. We were talking about guitars and touring, when Chris said “John Lee Hooker Junior. It must be a burden carrying that name around.” I just looked at him and said “Well, I’d imagine you’re infinitely more qualified to talk about that than I am.”
What are some of the most memorable conversations you had with Bobby Vega and George Porter Jr?
I was fortunate enough to interview both of them for badassbassplayer.com, which was a thrill, because they’re my two favorite bass players in the world! George isn’t a heavy technical guy, so with him, it’s more a case of “learn by example.” I listen to everything he’s played on and read every interview he does, including Michalis Limnios interview for blues.gr. George plays things I wouldn’t think to play, so studying his lines expands my ‘toolbox’, to use his phrase!
Bobby has been an inspiration, something of a mentor, and a very good friend. You hear a lot about players “expanding the voice of the bass,’ but usually that means playing the bass outside of the instruments usual role in the band. Bobby has expanded the voice of the GROOVE. He has developed technique and facilities that serve the traditional roles of harmony and rhythm, yet add a whole new dimension! Lot’s of guys want to emulate his technique, but what I want is a glimpse at where it comes from. I want to look “under the hood” so to speak, and see the engine that drives the machine. He told me “It’s not a style; it’s a groove.” I’m going to have that tattooed on my arm!
Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music? What are the things you’re most passionate about in life?
I like to write, but I don’t think of it as a hobby. I just love music, and playing the bass. I like talking about playing bass, reading about bass, and writing about bass! I just love the bass, man!
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
Artists now can have a lot more control over their own output. What, when, where, and how much can all be done by artists themselves, instead of paying for a lot of executive luxury cars. I think the downside is that there’s less collaboration and more singular visions in music today. Collaboration is where new and magic things tend to happen; the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. I think that’s disappearing a little.
What is the “think” you miss most from 60’s blues soul music nowadays?
Great bass lines! Listen to Soul music from the 60’s and 70’s and the bass playing was outstanding! James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Jerry Jemmott, David Hood, Larry Graham…the list is endless. Great players playing great lines! The music they call “Soul” or “R&B” today is all made by just one guy with a drum machine and a computer. But the early days of soul, and really, all pop and rock music of that era was the Golden Age of basslines!
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
First, love the music. Sex, drugs and rock and roll are all good fun, but eventually it has to be about music, or it will burn you out. If playing music for people that want to hear it isn’t reward enough, then get out. If a good show in front of a good audience makes you feel like a super hero, everything else just might fall into place.
And play the bass! It is the most in demand, coolest instrument there is! And it’s a lot easier to get started on than any other instrument.
How you would spend a day with Ernest Hemingway? What would you ask Lafcadio Hearn?
I think I’d like to hang out with Hemingway during his early Paris years. He had already been through a lot, but was still forming the big personality he would become. I’d love to just sit in cafes and talk to him about what he saw, and sort out his thought process. “A Moveable Feast” rides around in my bass case, and it’s actually a very funny book. There’s a lightness to it that slowly disappears in his writing as he got older.
Lafcadio Hearn wrote the single greatest sentence to sum up New Orleans in history! In 1877, in a letter to a friend he wrote;
"Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio."
I love how that sentence can still be considered true today in a lot of ways, but I’d be curious about the New Orleans of his time. What about it was so exciting to him? How did he spend his days in the 1870’s version of my favorite city?
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from New Orleans?
New Orleans is the most magical place in the world. I could feel it the minute I went there for the first time. The food is better, the music is amazing, the colors are brighter, and the ghosts of history hang in the air like humidity. Just as in Hearn’s quote, there are a lot of problems there, but New Orleans is worth every one.
I’ll tell you a story of a discovery I made. I stay next to the Garden District, and wander through the beautiful mansions, usually on the way to get coffee in the morning. I began to notice that on most of the huge, lovely porches of these homes, the ceiling of the porch was painted light blue. Even if it wasn’t part of the house’s color scheme, so many had different shades of light blue. So I started asking around, and the first answer I got was “I think it’s to remind people you’re outside. It’s a way of honoring the outdoors.” Digging a little deeper, I discovered that, traditionally, blue was the color to keep bad hoo-doo away from your door. So painting the top of your porch light blue protected the house! The tradition lives today even if the original meaning is obscure!
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