Still rockin': May 8, 2002
"Kenn Kweder has been up, down and out in his long music career,
always on his own terms.
At 50, the Philadelphian is celebrating that
perserverance with a retrospective CD set."
"Let's spread a rumor that I'm using a Tele-PrompTer on these gigs."
Kenn Kweder laughs when he thinks about it. Here he is, a onetime rock celebrity confronting the unlikely fact that he has survived long enough to merit a career retrospective. He's lined up a series of shows -- including two Saturday at the Tin Angel -- to herald his recently released three-disc compilation of rare and live material. Kwederology Vol. 1 and 2.
Because he's revisiting tunes he wrote and sang 25 or more years ago, he might actually need the technological crutch. After all, he has spent most of the intervening time in bars, entertaining those feeling no pain, working until the wee hours, and "coming home feeling like I've got aluminum filings in my blood."
But the sparkle in his eye gives away this Philadelphia institution, now 50. He's like a kid planning a prank. The vision of Kweder reading lyrics from a screen, like the late-period Elvis, suits his highly developed sense of the rock-and-roll absurd.
"Why not?" he asks. "Lots of guys do it now."
He's enjoyed this surreal look back at the not-so-misspent youth, because it reminds him of how he has bucked the odds.
That Kenn Kweder is still out there, making elegant, sharply observed rock music 33 years on, is a minor miracle. Most guys marked for stardom -- there was a time in the '70s when Kenn Kweder and the Secret Kidds were chased by the big labels and whispered about in the same breath as Patti Smith and Television -- fade away when the payoff fails to materialize. Not Kweder. With a rogue's charm and almost quixotic determination, the singer-songwriter-guitarist has stayed in the trench. Writing songs and tending bar, he's doing whatever is necessary to survive without sacrificing his musical ideals.
And at each step of his evolution -- Kweder has gone through a folk phaze, a prolific punk phaze, and a new-wave phaze; lived the expatriot busker life in Europe; written a poignant song about former Sixers center Manute Bol (used recently by ESPN); and made alt-country before there was such a thing -- he has managed to document his music. He has a discography of eight full-length titles, some issued initially on vinyl, others on cassette or CD. Virtually all were made on the cheap, without sufficient studio time, and with the help of a coterie of friends and strangers he calls "patrons of the Kweder arts."
"Making his music his way has always
been the key for the quixotic Kweder"
Once in the late '70s, Kweder was supplimenting his music income by parking cars. He struck up a conversation with a doctor. Within days, he had the money to record a set of songs, no strings attached. Another project was financed by a team of go-go dancers. From playing weekly at pubs around the University of Pennsylvania campus, Kweder developed a following among young soon-to-be professionals, some of whom remembered him when they hit the big corporate payday.
"I think they remember hearing me when they were in school, [and] I represented an alternate way of living, a somewhat romantic path they could have taken that maybe still looks good to them. My rules are different from theirs."
Lisa Abendroth, a marketing professor at Boston University, was Kweder's girlfriend for years and recalls his unique approach to saving money.
"We lived in an old, beat-up house in South Philly, and the walls were peeling." Abendroth says. "I would literally find cash stuffed into the walls -- when he had extra money, he'd stuff it into the walls instead of spending it. When it was time to make a record, he gathered it up and then he wouldn't have any cash anymore. ... I called it the Cottage Savings Plan."
Kweder, who now lives in Fishtown, says he doesn't care about money. He sees nothing unusual about this scattershot approach to a recording career.
"I haven't been able to pay anybody back," he says one night over a restaurant dinner that's interrupted several times as fans and friends stop by to chat. "I've done some nice weddings to thank people, and I'm on the hook for a few more. Most of the people give fractions, just a little bit, and when you add it all up it somehow turns out to be enough."
He acknowledges his patrons in the liner notes, but most don't want anything more. "What they want is for me to keep my word, to actually make the thing. I think people get lots of satisfaction helping take intangible things like songs and make them into something."
This funding approach comes with another big plus: Because there's no corporate oversight, Kweder can do exactly what he wants.
That's more important than anything else to the native of Southwest Philadelphia, who was raised Roman Catholic in a working-class Irish-Lithuanian family. The youngest of three, he grew up playing music, but didn't decide to devote his life to it until 1974, when he dropped out of Temple University just two credits shy of graduating with a degree in philosophy. He jumped into several bands, found a mentor in South Philadelphia songwriter Billy Schied, and hit paydirt during the early years of punk, when his frenetic brand of rock-and-roll attracted national attention.
"People [in the industry] liked the music" of the Secret Kidds, Kweder recalls. "We had New York management and they kept trying to get me to change the lyrics. They said it was the best way to get a record deal. I couldn't do it, and I never got the deal. Im a serendipitist, and I'm still convinced it was the best thing."
There were other collisions with convention.
One legend has Kweder pouring a pitcher of beer on prominent talent-spotter Clive Davis at a Secret Kidds show. (Kweder denies it.) He did have a reputation for being "difficult," if not arrogant -- he severed ties with the manager who wanted him to sing a song Kweder wrote for the kids' TV show Captain Kangaroo. And when the Secret Kidds didn't break out nationally, there was a local backlash: "In the mid '70s we were the toast of the town. Then by the late '70s I was like a pariah. When you don't win in a game like this, people just stay away from you."
Kweder, who has never married, worked as much as he could, but eventually got frustrated, and disbanded his band at the time, the Men From K.W.E.D.E.R., in early 1984. He headed to Europe, where he stayed for more than a year. Describing the period as a creative awakening, he says he came back renewed and more determined than ever to record regularly.
He hooked up with guitarist-producer Ben Vaughn and recorded several important albums, including 1989's Man Overboard and 1991's Flesh, Blood & Blue, two vivid examples of his ability to cross astringent Dylanesque lyrics with Captain Beefheart sonic lunacy.
Along the way, he assembled a string of memorable bands -- Kenn Kweder and the Men From P.O.V.I.C.H. upon his return, Kenn Kweder and the Radio Church of God in 1986 (the logo was plastered all over the city), Kenn Kweder and the Couch Dancers in 1990, Kenn Kweder and the Enablers Featuring the Co-dependents in 1991, and his current Men From WaWa. Some have been lean rock trios. Others, notably his ensemble of Elvis impersonators, numbered more than 20.
He has never had trouble lining up musicians to support him: Kevin Karg, lead guitarist of th Hangdogs (and formerly the Rolling Hayseeds) and a regular Kweder collaborator, says the songwriter is one of the few rock artists in Philadelphia who commands respect. "He's always had a stable of musicians who want to play with him. Not for cash, but because we get something out of it."
While gigs have been a week-in, week-out constant, the wiry musician with almost-reptilian eyes has always treated his band performances as events. "My idea was if we rehearse like gang-busters, and really work on the songs and the staging, we could create sort of a happening."
That he has done, over and over again. David Fricke, a senior editor at Rolling Stone who has followed Kweder since the '70s, remembers the early shows: "He was never less than over the top ... just always engaged, always there to pull the audience into the show. And in the thick of it musically, as far as he could go."
Abendroth says that even after seeing scores of Kweder happenings, she's still in awe.
"What makes him special is he follows his dreams. He never sold out, never compromised, and when you see him perform you feel that."
Kweder says he had no other choice.
"To really do all this scrambling, there's got to be some volcano inside of you. Stuff that just has to come out no matter what else is going on. That energy is contagious."
By: Tom Moon
The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 17, 1999
(Pandemonium Music ¥¥¥)
Kweder, the dean of Philadelphia rock songwriters, works convincingly in so many styles that it's impossible to isolate what he does best. Indre Sessions finds him working through the influence of Bob Dylan in both covert (the inner-directed "Torn Rice") and overt ("Girl With the Dylan Flowers") ways; exploring country through poignant ballads and spry dances; and engaging in expansive, classic-rock-style instrumental forays ("Diablo").
Even when his tricks are obvious - as on the songwriter's confession "Words and Dreams," which peaks with the line "this song won't cooperate, it's got two legs but they just ain't straight" - Kweder sings with a refreshing absence of contrivance. His easygoing delivery makes the earnest lines resonate, and transforms ordinary melodies into glorious airborne adventures.
Kenn Kweder: Pandemonium ¥¥¥: June 4, 1995
There's a breezy, charming grace to Philadelphia club mainstay Kenn Kweder's newest effort - his first since 1991's Flesh, Blood & Blue. From the opening garage rock of the Vox organ-driven "How Many Times" to the Zen-of-Kenn finale "Freedom from Sense," Kweder orchestrates a tour through '60s pop styles and often delivers subtle musical pleasures. Kweder doesn't have anything new to tell us about 'Edie Sedgwick," and Kevin Karg's guitar and Ernie Trinfro's steel can't save the decidedly odd "Laddie Boy Hawkins." But, for eight minutes, "Candystore's" psychedelic pop is a sustained delight, as is the trippy C & W of Joe South's "Imitation of Living." Twenty years of playing clubs hasn't changed Kweder a bit, and that's to the good: He's still in mint condition.
Kenn Kweder, May 5, 1995
Not quite on the heels of 1991's Flesh, Blood & Blue, Philadelphia's institution Kenn Kweder checks back in with the very simply titled Kenn Kweder, whose release will be celebrated with a party - and a fire-eater - at J.C. Dobbs next Wednesday. The latest by former leader of the Secret Kids, the Men from K.W.E.D.E.R., the Men from P.O.V.I.C.H. and the Codependents (to name just a few) is a reminder of what a treasure Kweder is. KK offers a sampling of Brit-pop, garage-rock, sunny psychedelia and a panoply of other infectious '60s-styled sounds, delivered with breezy panache and without an ounce of the bitterness you might expect from such a longtime scenester.
Dobbs party to welcome new Kweder Record: March 8, 1991
Call him the rock and roll prince of South Street. Kenn Kweder's 15 years on the Philadelphia music scene has made him a fixture on the city's hippest stretch of road. From the Secret Kidds to The Radio Church of God to the Men from P.O.V.I.C.H. to his current group, the Enablers, Kweder's rare talent for christening his bands would be notable in itself. That the boyish Kweder, 39, is a fine songwriter comes as a bonus. Wednesday night Kweder celebrates the release of his new disc Flesh, Blood and Blue (Pandemonium) at J.C. Dobbs.
The record, which features appearances by such local stalwarts as Buzz Barkley, Greg Davis, Aldo Jones and Daoud Shaw, is argument enough that it's high time Kweder got off South Street and onto the radio.
"Sloppy But Clean," co-written by former Vels pop-meister Chris Larkin, features a careening horn-section that could blow the socks off Southside Johnny. Another song, "My Uncle Made Me Do It," is best described in Kweder's own vibrant language: "I wrote it imagining what it would sound like if Roger Miller ("King of the Road") crashed into Captain Beefheart ("Ashtray Heart")." The idea, Kweder says, was to pack the song with "dimensional images, images which have sound and photographs attached. You can hear the images beyond the music."
But even if Kweder's quixotic visions don't find an audience on big time radio, he says he'll remain true to his calling. "I'll never be a glossified Grammy guy," he says. "I got conned into trying that when I was 28, but Ben Vaughn screwed my head back on tight. People delude themselves into thinking that if they're Axl Rose, they'll get the big record deal. But it doesn't happen that way. You end up taking a two-year ride down the river and your raft ends up sinking. What really matters most is staying alive and doing what you love best."
Kenn Kweder, Willie Johnson and Bach concertos: March 24, 1991
Flesh Blood & Blue
(Pandemonium Records ¥¥¥1/2)
It says something about Kenn Kweder's writing that at a recent performance to celebrate the release of this album, songs the singer-guitarist composed years ago sounded as vibrant as the new material. The 39-year-old Philadelphian, who has been performing in the area since 1975, makes twisted, unlikely phrases seem not only natural, but inevitable. His best songs seesaw artfully between arch satire and personal crusade, with hints of dementia thrown in for dramatic effect. He can create a memorable song from the most bizarre premise.
Kweder demonstrates this balancing act on the rockabilly "My Uncle Made Me Do It," the country-flecked "Man of Stone" and the urgently rocking "Suicide" and "Man's Got a Gun," turning each into a subtle social commentary. His technique is to throw the stressful realities of urban life onto the big screen, and to examine the tender nerves and reflex actions that result. The songs cause some squirming (their topics run from alcoholism to suicide to repressed emotion), but Kweder is a compassionate genius who never allows his considerable knack for wordplay to overwhelm the backbeat.
As interpreted by Kweder's excellent band, the songs of Flesh Blood & Blue crackle with an intensity that comes from deep respect for rock and-roll basics. Though it seems deliberately rough in most places, Kweder's singing softens for the chilling highlight "Doctor Says" and the youthful "Sidewalk Melody," which forgo even the suggestion of lunacy and show that his delivery and interpretive skills have broadened.
Best New Pop Albums: March 28, 1991
- Boukman Eksperyans
- Kenn Kweder
Flesh Blood & Blue
- Material Issue
International Pop Overthrow
Rooms in My Fatha's House
- The Feelies
Time for a Witness
- Dinosaur JR.
Blood, Sweat & No Tears
- Gregson & Collister
Love is a Strange Hotel
- Juan Luis Guerra Y 4.40
- Charlie Haden
Fans get a bang out of Kweder
He is the pride of Southwest Philadelphia, a rock 'n' roll outrage, a working man's hero, a drinking crowd's delight. He is Kenn Kweder, street punk supreme, and his gang is called the Secret Kidds. You better not mess around with this bunch.
The Kenn Kweder legend has been gaining momentum in and around Philadelphia for the past year or so, and his cult of passionate followers has been growing accordingly, guaranteeing brisk business in whatever bar is taken over for the moment by Kenn Kweder and His Magic Kidds.
Kweder has now completed his biggest move yet, ending a two-night engagement at the Bijou Cafe last night, and headlining her is generally reserved for "name" pop performers. But the Kweder crowd saw to it that their hero would receive a big-time reception.
There is nothing subtle about the Kweder approach to rock music. He comes on with all of the genteel qualities of a battering ram. And, of course, his brand of showmanship is strictly outrageous.
He arrived on stage for his opening set in a gaudy costume that was more slapstick glitter (or Mummers chic) than flash. He stalked the audience with a war lance... or something... and finally snapped the weapon across his knee in triumphant contempt, trading in the remains for an electric guitar, which he carried in the classic low-slung manner favored by the most arrogant of punk rock-guitarists ever since the first groupie squealed approval.
The music simply roars. It bounces with agonized wails from wall to wall. Under these conditions, one cannot determine if Kenn Kweder - a reformed folkie who concluded that there was a brighter future in rock 'n' roll - is trying to "say something" in his songs. The violent crush of the music and the shrieking Kweder tones are not calculated for lyric interpretation.
Yet there is no way to dispute the infectious spirit of the music and the good-time atmosphere conjured by Kenn Kweder and His Secret Kidds, whether working out on one of their own songs or something like Bob Dylan's scorchingly vicious "Idiot Wind."
A Philly Institution Rolls On: Friday, February 22, 2002
Hands down, Philadelphia’s longest-running – and most curious – rock attraction is the freak show operated by Kenn Kweder under various names and guises, including The Secret Kidds, The Radio Church of God, and the Men From P.O.V.I.C.H. For nearly 30 years, the guitarist and vocalist has done what few others in rock have even attempted: He’s alternated between arty, brutally honest lyrics and on-spot lampoons of rock indulgence, mixed righteous power chords with stream-of-consciousness street-person ravings and disarmingly sweet notions of romance. Kweder will celebrate the release of a mammoth new history lesson – Kwederology, Vols. 1 and 2, worth it for the who’s-who-in-Philly-rock personnel listings –with a pair of shows Saturday at the Tin Angel.