Rock musician Kenn Kweder has been a Philadelphia phenomenon for more than four decades, winning generations of fans. But national fame continues to elude him.
A new documentary film, premiering in Philadelphia Friday, presents “The Adventures of a Secret Kidd: The Mass Hallucination of Kenn Kweder” — the hallucination being the topsy-turvy, headlong rush of Kweder’s 45-year career.
It all started when he was 19 years old, fronting the legendary band The Secret Kidds.
“One-hundred percent, absolutely, I was convinced I was going to be world famous before I was 30,” said Kweder. “I thought I was way ahead of my time. I was a huge fan of Kenn Kweder. I knew that what I was doing nobody else in Philly was doing.”
He was lumped into the South Street punk scene; his chaotic shows were cathartic, propulsive, and energized. But Kweder never thought of himself as a punk. He was just imitating his mother.
“She was always an extremely dramatic person around the house. She could personify inanimate objects. She was a poetic person, always reading poetry out lout,” said Kweder. “She was a totally unstructured woman, and totally connecting to something that nothing in the neighborhood was connected to.”
While many of Kweder’s friends went on to bigger careers, that life-changing record deal never came through for him. As one of the hardest working musicians in the city, he gigs four or five nights a week — once in a while in a big music venue, mostly in coffeeshops, bars, and Sunday brunches.
“I’m announcing that Kenn Kweder is playing at a duck race,” said Kweder in the film, with a smile, to his late-night audience. “So, if you guys want to come to a duck race, it’s next Saturday at three in the afternoon.”
When filmmaker John Hutelmyer, 27, was a senior at Temple University several years ago, he made a short film about Kweder. Upon graduation, he set about making a feature-length documentary, backed by a successful $24,000 Indiegogo online campaign.
Starting in 2012, Hutelmyer and his partner Rob Nicolaides began shooting Kweder’s gigs, trying to keep up with the man 35 years their senior. “We were not with him every night,” said Hutelmyer. “That was impossible for us.”
Hutelmyer said the best material he recorded was while Kweder was moving. Behind the wheel of his car, driving to and from gigs, Kweder was at his most unguarded and revealing.
“We’d be driving somewhere and be stopped at a red light, and people would just come up and say hi, and start talking to him until the light changed,” said Hutelmyer. “You can’t go anywhere without people coming up to him to chat.”
Kweder is still working as hard as ever, but says the hardest thing about his job is not playing five nights a week, but constantly hustling new gigs. He always has his eye out for a new venue.
At any given time, Kweder has a roster of places he regularly gigs, but that roster is constantly changing. He assumes that half of his reliable places will dry up by the following year, and always seeks replacements.
“I do the sandwich trick,” said Kweder. “I go in with a guitar case, and get into a conversation. I don’t even bring up music. I let them bring it up. And I go back for a sandwich again, and by the third sandwich I’m getting a gig at the place.”
“The Adventures of a Secret Kidd” plays twice on Friday at the International House in West Philadelphia — a matinee and evening screening. (The evening screening is already sold out.)
Kweder gets a break this time. He will not be performing, just watching the film and talking with his legion of fans.