On a Saturday last month at Lambertville's ACME Screening Room, Philadelphia troubadour Kenn Kweder is telling stories, rather than just singing songs as he's done since the 1970s. These were long stories about long-gone men and women such as "Butchie" and "Susie," with no last names to protect the guilty. These were friends, lovers, and the occasional mob guy and prostitutes doing nefarious things. These characters hung around South Street long enough to litter Kweder's Dylan-esque songs before fading to black. "Bookies who ran laundries, punks, poets, druggies, sirens – that's my life," Kweder said from the stage.
These personal stories, interspersed with Kweder's chronological history of poetic song, make up Kweder Not on Broadway – KNOB – a show that repeats itself at Ardmore's Living Room on Tuesday, Oct. 30. Kweder and pal/KNOB producer Daniel Roberts – a playwright in his own right – are diligently working on booking KNOB in theatrical settings with extended residencies, not unlike Bruce Springsteen's autobiographical, Springsteen on Broadway.
"In the mid-'70s I jokingly told people that Springsteen stole my act, and that someday I might steal it back," Kweder said with a laugh.
Roberts saw parallels. "I saw Bruce do this show twice, and thought Kenny can do this," said Roberts. "Springsteen made you feel like you're the only person in the room. Like every joke and reference was meant for you."
At a post-ACME dinner in Lambertville, Kweder claimed that KNOB's fireside chat and incendiary songs came directly from his life in Southwest Philly, where he was born, and the '70s and '80s Philly music scene. While most characters littering KNOB remained anonymous, Kweder did pay direct tribute to neighborhood eccentrics who propelled his dreams (songwriters Chris Larkin and Billy Schied, poet-professor Paul Grillo) and literary inspirations (his song "Jack Kerouac").
Kweder named names when it came to Clive Davis, the record producer-turned-label owner who attempted to sign Kenn to a deal at Doobie's Bar, only to get a pitcher of beer over his head (at Kweder's hand) when Davis suggested Kweder lose his band. "That's the legend," Kweder said and laughed. "Even I'm not certain that's how it happened. But it sounds great."
It is such stories — true and exaggerated — that make up KNOB. For decades, Kweder would jump off-stage and begin to riff with his fans. "I can't tell you how many times people have told me over the years that I should simply tell stories onstage. I'm a yakkadoodle cat sometimes."
As a producer and playwright of off-Broadway works such as Frankie (2005) and The Gold Standard (2006), Roberts is taking the "yakkadoodle" and helping to shape the work. "All songs that Kenn does here must serve the story that inspired it, and the story had to lead perfectly into the song," said Roberts. "Yin-and-yang harmony. We'll get there. He just has to feel it out."
Much of what Kweder did at ACME, in terms of storytelling, was improvised. Roberts sees the pros of improv as being truest to Kweder's nature. "He shines when he's just … going. Cons are that comedic and theatrical timing — which is essential — can suffer."
Kweder, a rapid-fire conversationalist, knows that he must work on theatricality in a far more literal sense than he is used to. He's up to the challenge. "Since ACME was my first time doing a one-man, stand-up with bullet points, I'm in a learning curve on how to do it as best I can," said the singer. "The plus side of improv is that it's so darn fresh when you are doing it. Sometimes, though, improvisation isn't pure magic. It's a heck of a risk. Disaster lurks everywhere. That's showbiz."