The boy can play
Ryan Kelly lights up the blues circuit
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
“How the frig am I supposed to play now?”
Well, Chris Beard used a more colorful word than ‘frig’ as he watched Ryan Kelly and Smokestack Lightning leave the stage at the C Note Club in Hull, Mass., after torching the house with their version of Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman.” Beard learned from players like Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Buddy Guy; he knew that Ryan was something special.
A few weeks later at the Blues and Brews Festival in Westford, WZLX Sunday Morning Blues host Carter Alan had the same reaction to the 18-year-old guitar slinger. Alan has good ears — in 1981, he was one of the first American DJs to play U2 on the radio — and he made a call that got the band a spot opening for Chris Duarte this weekend at the Bull Run in Shirley.
That’s the way life is these days for Ryan Kelly, who’s barely out of high school but making moves like someone twice his age. It makes sense — he remembers first fiddling around with music as early as age four, so it’s been a lifetime. “My dad had a lot of nice guitars laying around,” he says. “I was always attracted to them.”
His band got their name from two characters in the 1986 movie Crossroads — aging bluesman Smokehouse Brown and young hotshot Lightning Boy. Most of the group’s members are old enough to be Ryan’s father, and one actually is — Dennis Kelly, who plays bass.
“Ryan’s had a guitar in his hand since he was about eight,” Dennis said. “The kid just lives and breathes it. He can play anything, it’s fun to watch.” At 14, he performed his first gig at Johnny’s Pizzeria in his hometown of Hudson, and quickly earned a reputation as a phenom with a Howdy Doody grin that belied his frenetic fretwork. These days, he sports a nicely cropped beard and mustache and could probably finesse his way into a bar even if he wasn’t playing there.
Early on, he learned from his father’s record collection. “He was born at the wrong time — he loves classic rock,” Dennis said. But when Alan Doyle, a family friend who coached a soccer team with Dennis, began stopping by the house with his harmonica to jam, Ryan learned about the blues and made up his mind about how he wanted to play. Doyle, says Ryan, “turned me on to Stevie Ray; I thank him for it a lot.”
He still draws inspiration from Jimmy Buffett, Dan Fogelberg and other singer-songwriters.
“I want to try and take their lyrics and put it with the energy that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Freddie King brought,” he says. In late August, work began on his first studio album. “I’m going to try mixing some modern stuff in with the blues, but you’re still gonna see the B.B. and Stevie Ray style, because people love to hear that stuff.”
His father was always a part-time musician, but never like this. “We’ve played 60 gigs this year. It’s been a crazy run,” Dennis said. A tour of Ireland next year is already in the planning stages.
This weekend, the band has a packed schedule, with the big show at the Bull Run on Friday followed by an Saturday afternoon appearance at the Southern New Hampshire Medical Center’s Celebration Day at Holman Stadium in Nashua. Later that evening, they’ll play a hometown set at Johnny’s Pizzeria in Hudson.
“Johnny’s feels like home,” Ryan said. “Johnny has helped me out a lot and shown me to a lot of other club owners.”
As the young guitarist has gained attention, he’s also had a chance to meet some of his heroes. “I got to see B.B. King and James Cotton for the old corps guys,” Ryan said. “I got to talk to James Cotton, but you really can’t talk too much because he’s all smoked out. It was good to hear some of their stories and learn what it’s actually like to live the blues life.”
It’s a life he’s long yearned for: “Before I even graduated, I wanted to do this full-time. I’ve been playing clubs, meeting other musicians and realizing how different they are from normal people, their sense of humor. I get along with them.”
In addition to working on the new album, Ryan is seeking out session work and listening to non-blues guitar players like Brad Paisley and Vince Gill. “If you’re a true musician, you understand that everyone has their own cool thing that makes them unique,” he said.
Ryan tries not to let the occasional adulation go to his head. But, he said, “there was one moment, when Carter Alan told me he liked my tunes, I was really happy after that. It was cool seeing him sitting next to the side of the stage, getting into the music.”