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John Kelsey is in the Grooves of the Woodwork

One can often find John Kelsey playing guitar with Isreal Hagan and Stroke. Or, one can find him playing his own solo gigs. But with John Kelsey the more you find when it comes to his musical endeavors, his passion for music, the joy…. and the truth he seems to find in music.

I’m just me. So the hell what.

But, if you ask me what a real, authentic, real-deal, no excuses musician looks like –Look to John Kelsey. He walks the walk, meaning he’s done the work first, before talking the talk. He plays from a Truth. He plays in a way that’s soul-soul invested. There is too much depth and dimension in his approach to art that renders him a little beyond the simple job title of “guitar ace.”

With a great history embedded in Central New York music – representing Syracuse, Utica, Mohawk Valley – Kelsey’s resume basically includes playing with just about every significant musician that hails and wails from the area.

When we chatted for this interview, I find that I like and appreciate his playing even more.

Chuck Schiele: How did you get into music in the first place?

John Kelsey: I think much like all guitarists of my generation. We were highly influenced and inspired by the music of the era. We had the privilege of becoming aware of the brilliance of the best bands, writers, performing and recording artists of a remarkable time in American music.

CS: I’ve never heard anyone say it quite this way – but your damn right. Privilege is a good word.

JK: Every genre was represented to me: Rock n Roll, Soul, Blues, Folk, Country, and Classical, and were readily available. I sort of ricocheted off of that in the mid-1960s and never looked back. I took guitar lessons from a brilliant player/teacher/friend starting on May 10, 1965. I’ve never given it up since. It’s as much a part of me as anything.

CS: Please share with us how you characterize your music.

JK: Eclectic. I love almost everything. That’s why I perform with a wide variety of local artists. I want to play almost anything.

CS: What do you love most about being a guitar player?

JK: I love lending my “voice” as a sideman or as a solo performer. It takes me back to playing in my room sitting on the edge of the bed. After I would practice a lesson, I would linger in the moment and take what I had just studied and noodled around with it. I didn’t understand it then, but that was the start of my development as an improvisational player. I got into a band called Target in the early 80s and that‘s where I learned how to be an ensemble player. I learned where the groove was and how to dovetail in or to drive it.

CS: Tell us about your current projects.

JK: I’ve worked as guitarist with the Syracuse iconic band, Isreal Hagan and Stroke for the last ten years. Isreal is a very cool writer and performer, and clearly one of the best front men I’ve ever worked with. He still has a remarkable quality voice and a multi-octive range. I learned a lot about the Soul genre from my time with those guys. Bill Barry is a solid keyboard player and vocal arranger. He’s the kind of player who provides the glue that holds any band together. I love to sing, but I’m really not great at it. But having Isreal and Bill to align with vocally allows me to slip into a three-part groove that makes our band come off the ground about four feet. I get a fair amount of solo time in a show and I love the Soul, R&B material. Also, in case anyone has forgotten, Isreal has nine Sammys. I’m pretty sure that’s a record.

I also do an acoustic duo with my buddy Chad Platz from Rome. We do a pretty cool variety of great covers. Its a broad range. And that’s what I love about acoustic renditions of band songs. I get to be the drummer, bass player, rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist and backup singer. There’s always so much to do and it doesn’t get boring.

I also do a longtime fingerstyle, instrumental guitar shtick where I play a dinner hour-style show. It’s strictly background music while people are eating. That whole thing translates to cocktail parties, receptions, wedding ceremonies, subtle events and even funerals. In that performance I’m playing solo arrangements of songs I love where I’m holding down the bottom end with my thumb and playing the melody with my fingers.

I recently started a children’s musical act with singer/songwriter Cassandra Harris-Lockwood from Utica and longtime CNY bassist, Johnny Handzel on stand up bass. We did our first show in Utica last week where we entertained area kids and their parents. I do that show on a nylon strung classical guitar (like I do with my solo). It has a nice vibe with the acoustic bass and the other acoustic played by Cassandra. Our intention is to be able to do this act moving forward. We already have another show booked at the Utica Zoo next month.

CS: What do you think of the music scene in Central New York?

JK: You probably get this same answer from a lot of artists here, but I’ll stack Central NY players and singers up against anywhere else. The sheer scope of talent from every genre of music is incredible. Playing with Stroke these last ten years has introduced me to quite a large number of these folks, yourself included. I’ve also done a few multi-bill shows or performed with bands like Los Blancos, The CNY Songbirds, Ron Spencer Band, Barn Dogs, Hard Promises, Ronnie Leigh, your band, Irv Lyons and the Light, Mark Macri, Mike Saraphim, Dave Hanlon, the Ripchords, Freney and Linnin, Mark Homan, Groupo Pagan, Todd Hoban and the late great Doug Moncrief, the late great Mark Gibson, Tom Townsley, Sammy award winning jazz artists ESP (with my friend Evan DuChene on drums), The Billionaires, Loren Barrigar, Little Georgie, Jukin’ Bone, and many others. Just from this list of players anyone who’s even half awake can tell that the caliber of talent here is stellar.

And that’s just from the Syracuse pool of musicians. Utica has a proportional array of great players going back a couple of generations including Joe Bonamassa, Carmen Caramanica who toured with Lou Rawls as his guitarist and arranger, Gene Rice (my guitar teacher as a kid) who went on to work for Chet Atkins in Nashville as an engineer, picker and won a producer Grammy with the band, Alabama.

There was also the great Bluenote artist, saxophonist JR Montrose who worked with some of the greatest players who ever lived, and others who went on to successful careers as sidemen along the way. If you were to include Camden, Rome, Auburn, The Mohawk Valley, and the North Country you would never fail to find artists who could hold their own anywhere.

CS: Please share a highlight or two from your career.

JK: My highlights would include several performances with Stroke on a big stage. We do the Taste of Syracuse every year along with some others and it’s always a rush for me to see that big audience and let it rip with my musical brothers. We also had a show with Harold Melvin’s Bluenotes at the Landmark. It turned into a bit of a debacle because the name act actually bailed on the performance. But Isreal, Buke, Bill and I got to do a rippin’ set on that stage and we got a standing ovation from the audience. I was about four feet off the ground at being able to perform on that stage.

A couple of others were small musical events where Irv Lyons asked me to act as one of the judges at a local song-writing competition. At one, I got to play a couple songs with the great Dave Porter. That was a lot of fun for me. At another, Irv and I were judges with the stellar Loren Barrigar. I got to play one of Irv’s cool originals alongside Loren. Loren said some very nice things about my playing. I found that to be high praise from an artist of his caliber and one I hold in such high esteem. It was quite a moment for me to trade fours with that guy.

CS: Interesting. I was a judge one of those, too…along with Joe Whting. And yes, Loren…I understand…even though I’ve had the privilege of jamming with Loren, it is still and always a bucket-list item for me to play with Loren, again. As it is for most everybody.

JK: And honestly, there have been scores of times when all the musical stars align and the band or duo sound great and I settle into that place where I know I belong – in the midst of a killer groove in front of an appreciative audience.

CS: How about a funny story from the stage?

JK: Honestly, the funniest stuff have been things I can‘t talk about here. But suffice it to say, with the players I’ve known over a 45 year career was a local player included moments where I laughed so hard that I almost fell off the stage.

CS: ehhh…chicken….lol. What is your number one tip for anyone getting into music?

JK: I think I would say, to always do the work first. Even if you’re a natural and have an aptitude for your instrument or voice. Remember there’s always more to learn no matter how accomplished you think you are. Take care of your instruments, gear, your hands and your voice. (I gave up doing stagehand’s work after 20 years to protect my mitts and I knew I wanted to be a working player rather than a guy who fractured his hand loading out a rock show or a Broadway touring act.)

The other thing is, have fun with it once you’ve done that work. The brotherhood I’ve felt with my fellow players is akin to my family life. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in a great Irish-Italian family where we’re all friends and fans of one another. I find the same thing with my bandmates. Once you’ve gone into battle with them (to win over an audience with all your might) the bonds can be lifelong.

I would also say, always remember to listen to the rest of the band.

CS: How do we all stay in touch with you and your music?

JK: I had a career for 40 years as a designer/illustrator/art director/photographer so I’m used to doing graphics and promotions for every solo, duo, or band show. I post them on Facebook. I’ll find out in the next couple of months where I’ll be and with whom I’ll be performing. Anyone I know on FB will be the first to know!

CS: This has been a great converstion, John, Thank you, so much for chatting with us.

JK: Thanks for this, Chuck. Keep up your own great work. Hope to see you soon!

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.