Over the course of more than 45 years, songwriter and guitarist Steve Kimock has carved out a unique niche, known in particular for his vast array of connections to the world of the Grateful Dead.
It’s a community of fans who’ve historically gone to great lengths to embrace the art of live performance and, as a result, one hit particularly hard as traditional concerts fell off the table for nearly a year and a half amidst pandemic.
“Let’s put it this way, I think that I’m more ready for it than the general public. Because it’s all I’ve ever done, you know? I’m 66 years old and I’ve been in a roomful of people with a bunch of musicians since I was a young teen,” said Kimock of returning to the stage this year ahead of a concert Friday night at City Winery. “I’ve played that room before. Jerry Joseph and I did a duo gig there I think when the Dead was in town that last time. So I’m really looking forward to getting back there.”
Following the release of his last studio album Satellite City in 2017, Kimock released the live EP Point of No Return in May of 2020, one from which a portion of the proceeds benefited musicians and crew, and remains at work on new music.
I spoke with Steve Kimock about Friday night’s Steve Kimock & Friends performance at City Winery, returning to live performance and the concept of improvisation. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity follows below…
Well, the obvious question first. Particularly after the last year and a half or so, what’s it been like being able to get back on stage this year and perform in front of actual fans?
STEVE KIMOCK: That’s a really good question. Let’s put it this way, I think that I’m more ready for it than the general public. Because it’s all I’ve ever done, you know? I’m 66 years old and I’ve been in a roomful of people with a bunch of musicians since I was a young teen. And the audience, god bless them, if they’re going out once or twice a week, they’re rabid music consumers. So I think I miss it more than anybody.
Some places, people are more willing to go out. And in some places, people aren’t ready – they’re not ready to gather. So I’ll see some of the venues and go, “Oh, there’s not a lot of people…” And then go, “Oh, that’s good!” Because the flip side of the thing is that I don’t necessarily want to be in a crowd either – but I really want to work, right?
The short version is I’m happy to get back to work and am looking forward to the day when there’s less of a pandemic cloud hanging over things. And that’s a responsibility that everybody’s going to have to take on themselves, to either get vaccinated or stay home. But, anyway, I hope for my sake that we get through that soon. Because I really want to play!
I knew when things shut down that the scene, in so many ways, was a very complex, chaotic kind of system – where things had found a very fragile equilibrium. Where everything was based on absolutely everything else that was going on. And, having pulled the plug on it, the chances of it reassembling itself as it was before were zero – no chance it’s going back the way it was. And it’s been a long time.
But, as such, I think it’s an opportunity for everybody to do maybe a little bit better – whichever side of the glass you’re on – a musician in any capacity or a fan or whatever. Whatever you’re doing, this has been rough. But it’s also an opportunity.
So be safe and recognize that some of these difficulties we’ve been through might represent an opportunity. And do your best to make it better. And see what we get when we put it all back together.
Kind of riffing off of that, you had the Nugs.net shows and the livestreams. Especially as live music was taken off the table there, just how important did those elements become in terms of making a living and remaining connected to your community of fans?
SK: Well, it’s gotta make a difference for people that just miss hearing and seeing their favorite bands play. To me personally? I’m not sure I notice it, that I’m at the effect of it one way or another.
I’m kind of old school – I go into a room and I play to the room. And if there’s energy or people or whatever outside of that that I’m reaching – but it’s not there where I can see or feel it – I have to confess that I’m kind of unaware of it. I don’t know how knowing that there would be more or less people or that it was recorded or not recorded would change my own performance of it or would direct it.
I’ll put it like this… I go out and I see the stage and I see the people and I see the crowd. And I look and I hear the music that’s being played. I see what the security is up to. And I take it all in. Then I go, “How do I want to start this show?” I didn’t write the setlist on the plane, you know what I mean?
Sometimes I’ll wait until it’s time to go on. Because it’s got everything to do with the lights and the room and stuff like that. I don’t know how to account for the virtual. I don’t know how to do that. I just have to do what I do right there on the stage with the band and the people in the room.
You’ve been out this month with Hot Tuna, with whom there’s obviously a long connection. What have those shows been like?
SK: Oh yeah! I just love those guys.
Somehow Hot Tuna was where my adult life as a musician began. Because they were the band that Billy Goodman and I, who will be on this gig with me, that was the first band that we opened for in California when we bailed out of Pennsylvania back in the 70s to seek our fortune in the land of milk and honey. So that was a big deal. Hot Tuna has always been a huge deal for us.
You mentioned Billy Goodman. Who else will be on stage with you [Friday] in Chicago?
SK: Well, it’s my son John on drums. I literally don’t understand how it worked out that my son is the best drummer I’ve ever played with. But that’s how that worked out. He’s amazing. Nobody plays better or handles all of that energy more responsibly – or just has the right sense of the gig – than he does. Which is an amazing thing. It’s [because of] super hard listening. He just listens better than anybody and has super high standards. So that makes my job a lot easier. His chemistry with me – he’s been at every gig I’ve played practically since he was a baby. So he knows what I’m going to do before I do it. Which is kind of intimidating! I can’t trick him.
The very next best thing is that it’s Bill Goodman playing slide guitar and rhythm guitar and singing. Billy and I have the same kind of relationship: I know what Billy’s gonna do and he knows what I’m gonna do. It’s pretty telepathic. And super trusting and fun. We felt like we were getting away with something when we were 20 and we were doing a rock band, you know? So now, whatever this is – 40 or 50 years later – boy do we feel like we’re getting away with something. So we love doing that.
The great bass player Kenny Aaronson, a veteran of all decent acts, keeps that together for us. And Mike Borowski, who’s kind of a Pennsylvania treasure, is on keyboards and vocals. And that’s the whole thing right now.
But in Chicago, you never know who’s gonna show up.
Any particularly fond moments stick out for you on stage over the years here?
SK: Oh there was one really crazy thing I did as Steve Kimock Band that was – I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was a private party or something like that? But it was way up high. Whatever the tallest building in town was, it was way up high in one of those buildings. And there was a guest tenor player who showed up and played just beautifully. So that was a Chicago moment. Only because the gig didn’t seem like it would be the kind of gig where it would get all avant-garde. But it turned out to be super wonderful musically.
I don’t remember the venue but Pete Sears and I did a duo thing at a little club in town one time that was one of the sweetest gigs ever – because it was just me and Pete kind of acoustic. That was excellent.
There’ve been too many gigs to remember. They have to be kind of unusual at this point for me to go, “Oh yeah!”
I think about your playing and obviously the word improvisation comes to mind. Whether it’s in terms of playing or as just a general approach to life, what does the concept of improvisation mean to you?
SK: Wow, what an interesting question… That is a really interesting question.
I think it’s just an admission to yourself that life’s not scripted. Right? And that things are complex enough that you might not be able to dictate what’s going to happen – which is sort of the opposite of the improvisation thing.
Another way to sort of put it might be that nobody in the audience knows what I’m going to play next – nobody on the bandstand knows what I’m going to play next. So why do I have to know what I’m going to play next?
I think if the idea, the concept, of improvisation means anything in life – like in a musical life – it’s just the realization that you’re going to have to deal with stuff as it comes up. And you can either take joy in that or comfort – or you can be frightened by it. And I’m just not frightened by it. So, it’s a great joy to me.
Jerry Garcia once famously called you his favorite guitar player. Who are some of yours?
SK: Most of my favorite players are dead.
But I certainly like Billy Goodman. I’ve always liked his bottleneck playing. He’s one of my favorite players. Of course, he’s in the band so maybe that doesn’t count.
But I like Julian Lage. I think he’s a great player. I like Blake Mills. I think the stuff he’s doing with Pino Palladino right now is some of my favorite music ever. I’m a big Derek Trucks fan. I’ll always be a huge Ry Cooder fan – and Dave Lindley too out of that older generation.
Pretty much anybody that’s playing slide guitar these days I like, the top of that crew probably being Debashish Bhattacharya. He’s a friend of mine and outstanding slide guitar player. If you don’t know his music, you should check it out. He’s like the global guy. If the aliens came and said, “Bring us your champion,” you’d bring Debashish. He’d play and they’d go, “Oh ok. We’ll let you guys live.”
STEVE KIMOCK & FRIENDS
Friday, December 10, 2021
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Tickets: $35 – $55
To purchase tickets, click HERE