Once upon a time, music and songs were performed without electricity or record contracts or bands. You got a personality, an instrument and songs that everyone in the room knew the words to. The so-called “wandering minstrel” was on a street corner or in the corner of a pub, not so much lending some ambiance, but being the ambiance. With the preeminence of big bands and rock bands and hip-hop crews, this tradition has slowly been pushed into the shadows of the club, but it hasn’t disappeared from the room.
Steve Kelly is one such minstrel. Equipped with a 12-string guitar, a rich voice and a bag of assorted percussion instruments, he isn’t out there striving for rock stardom. He’s just trying to make a living doing what comes naturally: performing and entertaining.
Originally from the Midwest, Kelly found the hidden high desert oasis of Reno about 20 years ago. He played in a few bands, had some good times and some great shows. But the bands split up and went their separate ways, and Kelly found himself traveling around Europe—Paris, Vienna, London. He saw men and women on street corners playing forgotten favorites for hours at a time, making enough money to buy some lunch and maybe a little extra.
“I think in Europe there’s much more of an appreciation for this kind of thing,” Kelly says. “The streets are closed off to everything but pedestrian traffic, and you just need to find the right spot to stand.”
This red-haired Son of Erin originally thought he could play at Irish pubs. His repertoire started off with Irish traditional, folk and drinking songs. However, Kelly hasn’t let the Irish tunes hamper him. He plays bars and coffee shops, from The Loft to Esoteric, and now has an extensive library of songs in his head, including pop, country, blues and the ever-popular acoustic rock.
“People will come up and ask me if I’m looking for a band to play with, but I’m trying to keep it simple,” Kelley says. “The independence just fits better with my lifestyle.”
Being a one-man variety show creates a different kind of pressure than that of your traditional band, but it has its perks. Kelly doesn’t cost as much and has less equipment to set up, but he has to be more on-the-ball when it comes to singing and playing; no one else is there to help cover up a mistake. He says that this kind of immediacy is what makes for great live entertainment.
“If people want, they can come up and tap a tambourine on stage, or just sing along in their seats,” says Kelly. “I write down every request I get. That’s where a lot of my repertoire comes from.”
Kelly does write and play originals (he’s currently working on a CD) and gets requests for them from time to time, but at this point, he’s more interested in playing songs with staying power, new and old. He wanders through the tables, listening for what the audience wants to hear next. Standing in the middle of the room, with no spotlight and all the eyes on him, Steve Kelly is bringing personality and simplicity back to the live performance.