Dr Harmonica and the Rockett 88
8p PM, TIGH MHARY NO COVER 21+ Dr. Harmonica and the Rockett 88 Mark Kenneally was in the 10th grade at Brandywine High School when he first saw a young George Thorogood perform. It was a high school dance and Kenneally was drawn to the stage as he watched Thorogood and his band run […]
December 21, 2017 · 8:00pm
8p PM, TIGH MHARY
Mark Kenneally was in the 10th grade at Brandywine High School when he first saw a young George Thorogood perform. It was a high school dance and Kenneally was drawn to the stage as he watched Thorogood and his band run through The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The part that changed Kenneally’s life was seeing Thorogood play the organ part of the song with a harmonica. Soon, Kenneally was in gym class asking Thorogood to teach him how to play like that and began daily lessons with the future rock star. “That’s how I got started,” says Kenneally, 65. “George just happened to be in my class.”
That twist of fate has led Kenneally on a nearly four-decade career as his alter ego Dr. Harmonica, leading his band called Rockett 88. Dr. Harmonica and Rockett 88 will rev up the engine once again Saturday at 1 p.m. at the fourth annual St. Georges Blues Festival, delivering a trademark high-energy and good-humored set of decidedly American music: jump blues, rockabilly, rock, funk and R&B. The fest, held at the grounds of the Commodore Center in St. Georges, is expanding to cover two days this year, starting at noon on both Saturday and Sunday. Last year, the festival had its biggest crowd — 800 blues lovers from across the East Coast. The expanded weekend, which makes the a drive to Delaware more worth it for out-of-town blues fans, is expected to smash last year’s attendance record.
Rockett 88 actually started as a band led by former Thorogood guitarist Ron Smith. Tired of the road even before Thorogood’s career exploded, Smith came back to Delaware and started Rockett 88. Eventually, the band was invited to go on the road and open a tour for Thorogood and that’s when Smith stepped aside and the doctor took over.
So why didn’t Kenneally end up in the Thorogood’s Delaware Destroyers after coming up through school with him as a fellow musician? Kenneally says Thorgood actually did invite him to join the band when they were young. But at the time, Kenneally was doing better than Thorgood thanks to a sweet twice-a-week gig playing a bar in New Jersey for $35 a night. “I decided that I was not going to give this up,” he says. “That was one of my more better decisions.” While Kenneally never toured the world like Thorogood, his legacy in the Delaware music universe is just as sturdy. After all, he’s played thousands of gigs over nearly 40 years and has earned the respect of his peers spanning multiple generations.
“He’s a legend in Delaware. Absolutely,'” says Gene Fontana, who first saw Dr. Harmonica and Rockett 88 in the late ’70s and has since founded Delaware’s Diamond State Blues Society. “And he hasn’t lost it either. At his age, he still does the same crazy stuff on stage.”
Last year, Rockett 88 had a reunion show upstairs at Kelly’s Logan House in Wilmington with all the former members of the band throughout the years returning. As you watched the musicians rotate on stage, it was hard not to think about the sheer amount of Delaware musical talent that has run through the band.
Everyone from Tommy Conwell of the Young Rumblers and Hank Carter of the Delaware Destroyers to The Bullets’ Michael Davis and The Sin City Band’s Jim Ficca have been members of Rockett 88, playing clubs like The Deer Park, The Stone Balloon, The Barn Door and The Winner’s Circle throughout the years. The band has famously collected a huge roster of former members during its time. “We’ve had about 75,” jokes Kenneally, a Wilmington native who moved to Milford in retirement two years ago. And by “retirement,” we mean about 50 to 60 shows a year. As Kenneally puts it, “Retirement doesn’t agree with me as much as I thought it would.”
Kenneally had cerebral palsy as a child, leaving his left hand permanently disabled. His disability forces him to hold his harmonica in a unique way — a ball of fists up close to his mouth as he hunches, blowing his lungs out. His ailment flared up several years ago, causing spasms and cramps. He couldn’t walk well for four years, he says, and was on his couch for another year before having surgery to repair his foot and ankle. He has since bounced back, losing some of the weight he had gained by walking up to 10 miles a day. “I have a lot of after-market parts, but I’m really, really strong now,” he says.
It’s an old school dedication to the performance that makes Kenneally stand out. In between his burly harmonica solos, Kenneally is always quick with a joke or funny story, making his shows more of an entertainment package than just a blues band playing in a bar. Even though the band has seen its share of membership, Kenneally is not a fan of doing gigs with replacement players, even as his band members have grown older and have more work and family obligations. He takes his job as a performer seriously. It doesn’t matter if there’s a crowd of six or 600 watching him, Kenneally delivers the same passionate show.
“When I tell someone we’ll play, it’s my name on the bill. It’s not the band members. It’s my name that’s on the line and I don’t like letting bar owners or our fans downs,” says Kenneally, whose most recent album, “Poultry & Adultry,” was released in October on Lancaster, Pa.-based Lanark Records.
The four-piece includes guitarist Seth Ivins and saxophonist Allan Yandziak, both of whom have been in Rockett 88 since 1984, along with drummer Tim Thorn. The band will share the St. Georges Blues Festival stage with local and regional blues acts this weekend incuding Kansas City’s Samantha Fish and Mississippi-based blues guitarist Jarekus Singleton. (Tickets are $25-$50.)
The Bullets’ Michael Davis, who was a member of Rockett 88 for a short time in the early ’80s, says Kenneally once gave him a bit of advice: always keep a nice pair of shoes for the stage. But when Davis saw Kenneally perform in recent years, he was wearing sneakers and Davis make a joke considering Kenneally’s past advice. Soon after that, Davis got a long e-mail from Kenneally explaining his foot surgery as the reason for his footwear, giving an insight into his work ethic. “He felt the need to explain to me that he should have been in a pair of fancy alligator shoes or something,” Davis says. “He takes his advice seriously.”
With Rockett 88’s 40th anniversary only a couple of years away, Kenneally isn’t thinking about all those long nights getting people dancing while wearing his fancy stage shoes. Instead, he’s thinking like he did back when he was a teenager just starting out. There’s only one focus: the next gig.
“There’s a line in that Willie Nelson song — ‘The life I love is making music with my friends’ — and that’s as much as I think about it,” he says. “That’s all I want to do.”