No-Brand Nudo

Kevin Elliott: A Soldier of the ‘Blues’

Kevin Elliott was a musical trooper when he took the stage at WEFT radio station on this night, ailing a little and perhaps not as primed to play as usual because of a lingering cold. But there was a writer around (me), a good number of people in attendance, and the event was part of the well-established Boneyard Arts Festival in Champaign-Urbana. So Kevin did what experienced performers must sometimes do: He sucked it up and played—and played well.

The atmosphere for performing musicians at WEFT is intimate, to say the least. Watching Kevin perform and trying to capture the heart of his performance made for a fun and memorable Friday night.

I love the last line of this story, if I do say so myself.

Musician Kevin Elliott is not a blues artist, but he’s going to try his hardest to sound like one tonight. Weirdly enough, the week-and-a-half-long cold that has affected his voice, and a right ear he currently can’t hear out of, may assist him.

The 60-year-old Elliott is sitting in the Great Hall of WEFT radio station in Champaign, tucked within a space of giant shelves that hold copious amounts of CDs. A wood board across the shelves above Elliott is plastered with stickers advertising bands like Bristle, the Bible Belt Sinners, the Inn Keepers, The Fights, and Elsinore, as if to counter the one-man show that’s about to begin.

Elliott doesn’t have a bass player or drummer around him like the groups touted above his white-haired head, but he does play a mean guitar. He also sings with feeling and is a solid songwriter—all talents, he says, that bloomed later in life.

Elliott doesn’t have a bass player or drummer around him like the groups touted above his white-haired head, but he does play a mean guitar. He also sings with feeling and is a solid songwriter—all talents, he says, that bloomed later in life.

Wearing a black sports jacket, blue jeans, mostly green tennis shoes, and glasses when he plays the guitar, the bearded Elliott, who lives in Urbana, has the look of a prototypical professor. He actually is a well-educated individual with a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and was once in a doctoral program, which he left because he had a good job as clinical director at The Pavilion in Champaign. Elliott wasn’t interested in research and didn’t want to teach.

WEFT DJ Bob Paleczny, hosting the Friday evening show Blues Live, walks up to chat with the musician prior to Elliott’s live-on-air performance.

“My voice is terrible,” Elliott admits to Paleczny, “but the show must go on, right?”

“It’s a blues voice then,” Paleczny says, helpfully.

“Well, you’re gonna get a good blues voice,” Elliott responds, laughing.

The two WEFT DJs—Elliott hosts the show From the Joshua Tree Inn on Tuesday evenings—discuss their various ailments and biking and car accidents that happened to them years ago. Paleczny puts things in musical perspective: “Hey, it’s all blues, you know.” He suggests Elliott perform songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash.

Elliott again emits his endearing laugh. “I’m doing all Kevin Elliott stuff.”

“Well, that’s fine. That’s blues, too.”

With a bum right ear, a blind right eye, and a scratchier voice than usual, Elliott launches into “Hey Jaybird” from his 2016 CD, Patterns of Blue. He describes the ditty to the audience of 20 or so as a tad “naughty.” What comes through to the casual listener, however, is a tender, beautiful love song.

Elliott’s three CDs, two of which were released by Soona Songs, abound with rhyming patterns, quirky lyrics filled with dysfunction, and finger-picking acoustic guitar that isn’t afraid to meander and sound discordant in spots.

He noodled around on the guitar in college and got pretty good, and then improved considerably with time. During his 20s, Elliott wrote many songs and put out home recordings while performing “once in a real blue moon.” He loved folk music and rock-and-roll artists, but Elliott’s own singer-songwriter career wouldn’t happen until much later.

Elliott says starting the business he ran for more than a decade, Elliott Counseling Group, was a satisfying venture. Now semi-retired, he’s pulled way back on his clinical duties while his wife, Sandra Ahten, manages the business, which started in 2002.

He caught a musical break one year while attending an event known today as the Folk Alliance International Conference, where he annually networks with fellow music fans. One of those contacts approached him with an offer.

“This little record label called Soona Songs—I played some of their artists on my radio show as a DJ here at WEFT—they liked my music and offered me a contract,” Elliott says.

Elliott is fine with releasing his albums at a pace of one every five years (2006, 2011, and 2016) and has ideas for future collaborations. He’s lucky, he says, to work with a record label staffed with friendly folks who are knowledgeable about music and lenient about his record-releasing timetable.

Elliott’s pre-show worries about his voice were unnecessary. After playing a few songs he does sound a bit gruffer than on CD, but his cold also gives his voice a soulful, indeed a more bluesy, sound. An echo effect on Elliott’s voice on one of the songs adds flair to the performance.

Paleczny talks with Elliott in an on-air interview during the show, discussing his past music, his reluctance to tour because of a 6-year-old grandson he likes to be with, and his familiarity with the Folk Alliance event, which Elliott has rarely missed during the last decade. As dedicated WEFT volunteers, both music aficionados love such happenings because of the wealth of CDs they acquire from talented, independent artists.

“First and foremost I’m a music fan, so it’s totally the kind of place I want to be,” Elliott explains to Paleczny. “It’s where I’m surrounded by music I love and meeting the people making it and getting stuff to take home.”

“Well, that’s WEFT,” Paleczny responds, shifting gears a bit. “We’re all volunteers here, and people like Kevin go way out of their way to bring music here to the community. We really appreciate it.”

“Thank you. I know you do the same thing. It’s definitely a labor of love.”

Elliott’s performance in the Great Room is complemented by the imaginations of local artists who have presented their work atop sheet music. The benefit show, Chorus, is part of Champaign-Urbana’s sprawling Boneyard Arts Festival, which has been around for 15 years.

Approximately 50 varied and vivid images are hanging on the shelves, projecting a range of thoughts and emotions. Around 30 people have made their way in and out of the room all evening, mingling, talking, purchasing items, and eating munchies and drinking beverages. It’s a cozy, ambient affair.

The words in Elliott’s songs—on tunes such as “Prettiest Girl in AA”—convey situations that may have attracted him to being a therapist. He’s met many folks in his life who wouldn’t be considered role models, yet their stories are fascinating.

“I think people are interesting and complicated creatures, and it’s not cut and dried and there’s a lot of ambiguity and paradox and contradictions,” he says.
As Elliott’s set winds down, Paleczny asks him if he’s got a few more numbers left in him. The singer jokes that his voice is not the “finely tuned instrument” he usually has at his disposal.

“We’re on Blues Live here,” Paleczny reminds him.

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. It’s Blues Live. It can sound funky.” Elliott plays the song “Patterns of Blue” and then ends the evening with “Impressions,” sung with his wife, whose melodious voice supports her husband’s to the finish line. For several minutes, under the array of rock-band names, Elliott is no longer a solo artist.

Photos by Sal Nudo


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