Born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, folk-rock musician Kenn Kweder, entered the music world with his first band Kenn Kweder and The Secret Kids. Known as the “Bard of South Street,” the fiercely independent singer-songwriter has been an iconic name in Philadelphia since the early 1970’s.
Noted for musically diverse styles, his influences range from Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, Dave Van Ronk, David Bowie, to Reverend Gary Davis. With five albums to his name, Kweder at age 70 is showing no signs of slowing down and continues to perform throughout the Philadelphia area.
This week marks his 30th consecutive year of playing every Tuesday night at Smokey Joe’s, a University of Pennsylvania favorite bar hangout. Smokey Joe’s owner Paul Ryan says, “I brought him in and hooked him up with Mark Teague. And he’s been there ever since.”
You’ve played Smokey Joe’s every Tuesday for 30 years. How does it feel?
It feels exhilarating and surprising at the same time. I never thought I’d be there this many years. I simultaneously welcome it at the same time. I am very deeply appreciative of the fierce loyalty that the University of Pennsylvania community has shown me. They are fiercely loyal and they show up to the shows.
For a guy as old as me to look into the audience and see people a couple of generations younger than me that are getting along and listening to my songs, it is a pretty damn healthy experience.
Do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
In terms of live performance, I feel tremendous. I don’t know anyone else who has done 30 straight anywhere else in Philadelphia. There must be somebody, not just me. I looked it up and didn’t really find anything. I know there was a guy named Nate Wiley. I know that he played a couple of decades on South Street. Another guy who was a piano player named Ted Gerike played for about fifteen years at a hotel in town.
I have a deep gratitude towards the Penn community. Also, primarily to the owner of Smokey Joe’s, Paul Ryan, because there were times when we had a couple of slow months. Generally, every club owner would fire the performer during slow months. He stuck it out with us and he is extremely loyal.
Can you talk about Smokey Joe’s and what the bar/venue means to you?
On the University of Pennsylvania campus they call it a Pennstitution because it has been there since 1952. Everybody has passed through it at one time or another: Politicians, senators, famous cooks, actors, and musicians. Many people have passed through the doors of Smokey Joe’s.
I remember in 2008, Joe Biden walked in to give a little speech in between my set. He was running for Vice President with Obama during the time. John Legend was there many times while I was playing. A lot of people have been there. They call it a Pennstitution.
Is it true Elon Musk used to serve you beers while he was at The University of Pennsylvania?
He was a bar-back. I don’t really remember him because it was 30 years ago, but they told me he worked there. He was at Wharton in 91-92 while he lived there. I know he was there drinking, I can tell you that.
I am looking forward to tonight’s show because a guy named Josh Zeelander is going to be playing in between us. He is a student at Penn and has a real strong following. He is really great.
How crazy can the shows get?
It can get so crowded that there are double layers of people on other people’s shoulders. One time there was a snowball fight inside as it was snowing outside. There was a snowball fight going on while we were onstage. I loved it. It gets chaotic as people are dancing and there are mosh pits. Some nights it is quiet. You just never know what to expect. Tonight, I am expecting vintage chaos and pandemonium.
How do you keep up the pace at age 70?
Yesterday, I was doing an interview for a newspaper in Philadelphia and the guy was wondering the same exact thing. Last week I was drinking for 48 to 52 hours straight. By the time I finally got it together, I was in pain for a couple of days and then I completely stopped drinking. I never really feel like I need a beer, but once I get going I go for the blackout zone. I can’t do it all the time as the nuts and bolts that hold my showbiz career would fall apart.
What’s next for Kenn Kweder and how much longer will your Smokey Joe’s run last for?
I was thinking about that earlier today. I feel like my energy and mitochondria are diminished. I might break it back to once every two weeks. It’s not just the gig, it is what goes on after the gig. I never get home earlier than 4:30 in the morning after a Smokey Joe’s gig. I usually have lots of cocktails so my Wednesdays are usually pretty difficult. Do you know of any 70 year olds that are out until four in the morning drinking? I really hate to give an end date, but I don’t think I can keep going at the velocity that I have been going.