Steve Kimock: more than a feeling

by Steven Shayman

A friend of mine calls improvisational guitarist Steve Kimock “The Master,” constantly marveling at his shimmering harmonics, dynamic swings and musical “feel.” What does Kimock have to say to this straightforward sort of hero worship? (Think Wayne’s World’s “We’re not worthy!”)

Speaking from his Bethlehem, Pa., home studio, north of Philadelphia, Kimock laughs modestly when I tell him this. “Thanks, that’s sweet, but I think that this is kind of an important point: When people are really digging music, [they should] be careful to remember that it’s their appreciation of music that they’re enjoying,” he says. “It’s like music itself, it’s not something that you can personify, you know, so if you like what we do, that music, the feeling that you get when you’re listening to the music and you feel good about it, and you really feel it, that’s music. It’s not the artist; it’s about just the human ability to appreciate music and to experience it, like an emotion.”

Kimock’s instrumental-only sound is best experienced live, and you’ll be able to do just that when the Steve Kimock Band pays its fourth visit to Japan later this month.

The live setting makes a big difference, Kimock says. “I guess the first thing you need to understand is the improvisational concept that we’re working with,” he explains. “It’s group improvisation. And that means the quality of the improvisation is directly tied to the quality of the listening environment that the players are in. So if you’re in a room that sounds good, with an audience that’s respectful of the dynamic range and we’re beginning to work the dynamic thing in music, what that brings to the overall effect . . . you know, if you have that on your side, then obviously you can play really well.”

Kimock says Japan’s culture and society produce an ideal performing environment.

“The audiences there are fantastic, really fun to play for. And all the rooms that we [have] played in were great, the production always really together, and the audiences very enthusiastic and respectful of the music at the same time, which is not a combination that you very often see Stateside,” he says with a chuckle. “It seems to work well for us, musically.”

Kimock is a gear geek, noted for his collection of beautiful guitars, including a standby white Stratocaster and a Fender triple-neck steel, which he’ll be bringing to Japan.

A self-taught innovator since his high-school days in Bethlehem, Kimock moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-1970s to play guitar with the folk-rock group The Goodman Brothers. Along the way, he jammed with many legendary musicians, including guitarists John Cipollina of Quicksilver, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, Garcia cohort and bassist John Kahn and the prolific keyboardist Nicky Hopkins.

Kimock also did stints with tenor saxophone player Martin Fierro in the salsa band The Underdogs, and in 1979 joined the Heart of Gold Band featuring ex-Grateful Dead members Keith (now deceased) and Donna Godchaux and drummer Greg Anton, recording one album. In 1984, Kimock and Anton cofounded Zero, with which he toured 16 years and recorded six albums. The late 1990s also saw Kimock sharing the stage as signature guitarist with post-Grateful Dead ensembles The Other Ones and Phil Lesh and Friends. In 1998, Kimock formed the hard-jamming unit KVHW, with Zero bassist Bobby Vega, guitarist Ray White (a Frank Zappa alumnus) and drummer Alan Hertz.

The Steve Kimock Band came into being in 2000, and features top-notch musicians: Grammy award-winning drummer Rodney Holmes, guitarist Mitch Stein and bassist Leo Traversa. It’s their chemistry and collective musical pedigree that define the vibe of SKB shows. Their sound also reflects Kimock’s myriad influences: psychedelia, jazz, blues, “sacred steel” gospel, and guitar music of the African, Persian, Indian, Hawaiian and European varieties.

So far, SKB has released two live CDs (including one partially recorded in Yokohama) and a live DVD. The group’s first studio album is expected this autumn. In addition to soundboard recordings of shows that can be downloaded for a fee from an Internet download service, Kimock gladly posts recordings of SKB performances, available for free.

I ask him how he squares this business model. “The reason that we post the stuff is that we don’t really have the opportunity to tour everywhere we’d like to, and I know that there are fans in Japan, in Europe, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world who can’t get to every show, and there are shows that they would like to hear. And I think it’s great they can keep track of what the band’s doing and how things are evolving, by making use of these services.”

Kimock’s focus on the live element allows him to leave the music distribution and merchandising matters to others. “You’re gonna think this is kind of silly, but . . . I don’t pay attention to it,” he says. “My nose is to an entirely different grindstone.”

That musical work ethic, honed over 30 years, allows Kimock to focus his energy on creating the atmospherics and feeling that are hallmarks of SKB’s live performances. But again, he insists it’s not all about him — or his colleagues on stage. “It’s just like that. It’s not about the players specifically to make it happen . . . it takes the whole audience and everybody that’s working the show, to make it successful, and I always try to acknowledge that, whenever I can.”