“I don’t remember wanting to play guitar when I was really young, but once I started, I never stopped,” says Connor Kennedy, a 17-year-old singer/guitarist from Saugerties. The Valley is known for breeding young, extraordinarily talented musicians, and like Kennedy, some of them have had the opportunity to begin performance careers before they reach age 18. While he hasn’t often played beyond the borders of New York, he’s quickly made an impact around the region: in Ulster County he’s a music-scene staple, playing a range of sounds from soulful blues, to psychedelic funk, to classic rock. He fronts two bands — the bluesy Connor Kennedy Band; and Rethink Pink, a spot-on Pink Floyd tribute that features Scott Sharrard (of the Gregg Allman Band) as second guitarist.
While he grew up in a somewhat musical family — dad’s a casual guitarist and mom used to sing in a bluegrass band — Kennedy’s passion for music all started with the advice of a schoolteacher who saw a spark.
“In third grade I had this great teacher that encouraged me to go above and beyond in everything I did,” he explains. “She suggested I take this class for gifted and talented kids being offered at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh. I saw a guitar class on the pamphlet and figured I’d try it.”
Around the same time he began playing guitar, he was introduced to the psychedelic sounds of Pink Floyd. “It was pretty much the only music I listened to and practiced to for three years,” he says. He had his first taste of performing Pink Floyd’s music a few years later at Cahill Elementary school’s sixth-grade talent show; he played guitar to “Money” over a recorded track. “It was horrifying and nerve-wracking,” he laughs, “but successful.”
Around that time, Kennedy’s father brought home a Stevie Ray Vaughan DVD, and suddenly Connor was bitten by the blues bug. He dug into Vaughan’s music, then into the musicians who influenced the late guitarist — Albert King, B.B. King, and the like.
Kennedy began practicing three to five hours a day, every day, then started exploring the idea of performing in front of an audience at the Inquiring Minds bookstore’s open-mic nights. “I would go every Tuesday night, but secretly, because I didn’t want my parents to come; I was still too unsure of myself,” he says. “The first few times I wouldn’t even sing, just play guitar, but even though I had bad stage fright, I became comfortable enough to try singing. It helped when my first band, Depot Street, came together because I was the only member who didn’t mind singing.”
Depot Street faded away after its drummer switched bands. When percussionist Lee Falco — another uniquely talented young performer — came into the picture, along with Jeremy Baum on organ and bassist Kyle Esposito, the Connor Kennedy Band was formed.
“By now I’ve been nonstop for the past two years, playing shows three to four nights a week,” he says. With the success and kinship the group has developed, they decided to attempt Rethink Pink, with the addition of Sharrard. “I always wanted to do it — it’s the music that’s closest to my heart,” Kennedy says. Their first show was last Halloween at the Bearsville Theater; what was was supposed to be just a one-night performance has turned into an ongoing project. “At first, everyone was against being a tribute band. The idea was: do it once, do it well, and hopefully everyone talks about it forever. But we really enjoyed ourselves. And really, it’s more like we’re half-tribute, half-jam-band, providing each musician the space to expand on a song and show off his talent.”
Besides regular touring, Kennedy hopes to record an album in the next year, working with other local songwriters. “It’s part of my master plan to avoid failure in the next year when I turn 18,” he laughs. “I’m not trying to ride the teen-musician thing; I know I can’t. There’s already a difference in the way people respond to my performance this year than they did when I was 16. But it’s inspiring me to play better and present myself better.” And while he has the ambition and talent to continue growing, he says he plans to keep one foot in the Valley. “I think blues, soul, and music that makes people dance is a necessity around here because people relate and respond to it so well,” he says. “So I’m happy to stick around for a little while and provide that. In school kids are always complaining about their hometown and how much they can’t wait to leave. But when you’re experiencing more than usual, and seeing new things, and meeting new people, it’s not so bad.”