Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan catches up with the legendary ‘Smoking’ Kenny Smith in a night with The Fender Benders in Hard Rock Cafe Phnom Penh.
You might think that The Fender Benders are blokes in bandanas, ripped jeans and cowboy boots strutting around the stage with their Fender guitars, mimicking Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eddie Van Halen. To hell, no. None of them play Fenders, they wear full business suits, Italian shoes and dark glasses – and have a secret weapon that goes by the name of ‘Smoking’ Kenny Smith who plays a Tokai Silver Star that at one time surpassed Fender’s American-made Stratocasters in popularity.
And US-born Kenny Smith is no stranger to guitar virtuosos in the region – the man is a legend bluesman, a reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters and BB King all rolled into one performer on stage.
Kenny Smith is a blues purist and in one lifetime when he was mired in poverty in Phnom Penh he told a writer: “I’d rather starve to death than play pop music on my guitar in a pub to survive. I was born into the blues and will die in the blues.”
In 2013, he wrote poignantly in Leng Pleng: “This is Wednesday morning and I don’t consider food an extravagance – so I better make a plan quick. Three words that I dislike are mathematics, budget and reality. I could add rice and eggs to that list because the next question I ask myself is how much rice and eggs can I stand for the next three days? Sure I could call a friend and ask for a small loan, but I’ll take the wait and see what approaches.”
Kenny Smith began playing the guitar at a young age and wrote in Leng Pleng: “I do remember as a 12 year old kid hearing the words from my 16 year old brother who just received a guitar for Christmas and quickly stashed it under his bed: ‘Kenny if you ever touch this guitar I will kick your ass!’ Who could resist that temptation?”
“My predetermined fate had been set in motion. A cheap guitar and a beginner’s book of guitar chords were calling for the sweat from my brow and blood from my fingertips. They were looking to set me up for an adventure only available to those of us who refuse to abide by the social norms and those who take the road less travelled,” he adds.
The Fender Benders are Kenny Smith on lead guitar, Pavel Ramirez on second guitar and rhythms, Chris Hilleary on bass and Adam Lane on drums. On Monday night at Hard Rock Cafe Phnom Penh, in Exchange Square, they pumped up the house with their southern blues rock that can honestly be considered one of the best throwbacks in the city.
A strong influence on Kenny Smith and also his personal confidante is Chris Hilleary, a prime mover in The Fender Benders. And it was through Chris that Kenny Smith began to infuse more rock with a blues slant into his life – after all, you only live once so why not be happy?
With Pavel Ramirez supporting him on second guitar in a call-and-response session, Kenny Smith breezes through bluesy versions of the Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers” and “It’s All Over Now”. It’s a much happier Kenny Smith and gone are the days when the man brought his whisky blues on stage and made his guitar weep in 15-minute-long solos. They were so sad that no pub owner wanted him around. “You’re making my customers depressed,” they used to say.
Kenny Smith’s rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Highway 49” with guest artist Colin Grafton on blues harp was reminiscent of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood playing guitar on “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” album.
Eric Clapton once said that the way he played the guitar was “like putting pieces in a puzzle”.
“That’s how I see it. I create a portion of time for a beginning and an end. It has to make sense and make a picture,” Clapton told Rolling Stone.
Like Clapton at a Crossroads guitar festival with Tracy Chapman, Kenny Smith deftly crafted Pavel Ramirez’s rendition of Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” into a storyline with a call-and-response session – expertly weaving together the major and minor pentatonic scales up and down the guitar fretboard.
Kenny Smith’s fretwork at times, with ghost notes and half-notes here and there, makes no sense. But he’s a genius at work – beyond the comprehension of simple minds trying to understand him. It’s like drummers trying to decipher the way Mick Fleetwood plays. Geniuses are best left to themselves and all we, mere mortals, can do is just enjoy their music.
With The Fender Benders, Kenny Smith is now facing forward. He’s slowed down, feeling much happier and not burning it up in the fast lane.