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Arts & Culture

Get Set for High-Energy Syracuse Blues Memories with The Kingsnakes

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Come 9 o'clock Friday night, expect Clinton Square to be rocking.

The Kingsnakes are coming back to the stage. Syracuse's love affair with this homespun blues band can ignite once again during night one of the New York State Blues Festival.

The reunion set by Pete McMahon, Terry Mulhauser and mates closes the schedule that starts at 4 p.m. with Castle Creek, and continues at 5 with Phil Petroff & Natural Fact, 6:15 with The Highjivers, and 7:30 and Danielle Nicole Band.

That's a nice mix of local and national acts at the free-admission festival.

Saturday's schedule stretches even longer, with a 1 p.m kickoff by the Signature Student Band. The local and national blend continues at 2 with The Swamp Drivers, 3:15 with Los Blancos, 4:30 with John Primer,  6 with The Carolyn Kelly Blues Band joined by Soul of Syracuse, 7:30 with the Devon Allman Band, and 9:30 with Robert Randolph & The Family Band.

There's a sound within the big umbrella of the blues for everyone. You can find a  detailed description of the bands by clicking here for the fest's site. And fans surely will be traveling from around the state and further to see famous son Devon Allman and the fabulously spirited roots of Randolph and his family on Saturday night.

The ties between the Kingsnakes and this host city are also quite familiar.
 

They go back 32 years, born with this band in 1983 and bonded securely with a 10-year career that included studio records under the quiet guidance of local master musician Mark Doyle and live recordings released on the label of Blue Wave Records of Baldwinsville's Greg Spencer and local shows that shook the foundations of every place they played. And, oh, yes, guitarist Terry Mulhauser and harpist-vocalist Pete McMahon and vocalist Kelly James and drummer Lou Micelli and keyboardist Jerry Neely had a chemistry, they did. Others with big blues names,  bassists T.A. James, Gary LaVancher and Paul LaRonde, and drummers Garnet Grimm and Mark Tiffault, were part of the magic at one time or another. And they were invited on the road, and backed up the legendary John Lee Hooker for four years. 

They reunited at the 2004 New York State Blues Fest, and Clinton Square remembered that decade with shoulder-to-shoulder awe.

It was the last time they played together, though Mulhauser and McMahon still are big parts of Syracuse's blues scene, the former now guitarist with the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band and the latter blowing harp and singing with Mark Doyle and the Maniacs.

And, for the last month or so, rehearsing with Neely and Micelli for this Kingsnakes reunion,  with Len Milano also on drums, and Los Blancos' Steven T. Winston stepping in to play bass, and Doyle coming aboard to add some piano and keyboard parts, and a horn section of Frank Grosso and Joe Carello, too. They even hope that Tiffault, who's been on injury leave from Los Blancos the last four months or so with a bad back, has mended enough of late to sit in for a four-or-five-song stretch.

That will be out of 25, McMahon says. These guys are serious about providing a fun time.

"It'll be good," the blues veteran of home and abroad declares confidently. "I'm super excited."

"We'll take a chance," says Mulhauser. "It's always interesting strolling back through time."

They both agree that it does not take long for their chemistry to return when they begin playing music together.

"It's there. It's unspoken," Mulhauser says. "With Lou, too. Jerry. Charter members."

"There's a lot of heavy juice between Terry and myself," McMahon says. "It's a real thing. It's synergy. Whatever they call it. Same thing with Lou Micelli.  He's playing, and we all of a sudden went back to early Kingsnakes that never even was recorded. It's hard-wired in us. We're Kingsnakes."

Up there, they'll think about founding big man Kelly "K.D." James, also always known by the nickname "Dr. Blue," who passed away in January 2012 at the age of 76. And they'll remember Kyle "Hawk" Shirley, a founder of the New York State Blues Fest an iconic figure in the Syracuse blues scene who could always be spotted in the flanks of just about any local show holding his can of Bud, who died this April at the age of 62. 

"Kyle, big-time. Somebody took a photo of us together, and I blew it up and put it up in my basement to remind me of where I came from," McMahon says. "And Kelly, Dr. Blue, his playing was always so tough. Good spirits will be up there with us."

They'll be ready with their hard-rocking blues, Mulhauser says.

"The blues is forever. (Legend) Willie Dixon says, it's a feeling. If you're living, you'll get the blues. All I have to do is step up there on the stage with Carolyn Kelly or Pete to believe that. ... To me, music happens. You can digitize it. But it always gets back to real music."

Get ready for that real music Syracuse style, McMahon says. He's been around the block, with the Kingsnakes and Savoy Brown. He's willing to measure and judge and evaluate.

"There's some great players in Central New York," he says, "I'd put us up. I'd put us up against anybody. Not just blues. All genres. Any style."