Stopping the Hurricane: a Neal family story
by Shannon H. Williford

There was a big festival on Labor Day weekend scheduled downtown by the Mississippi River, where the casino boat docks now, in one of those then-new urban revitalization markets called Catfish Town. It was a Saturday night, and they had booked musical acts to play through the night, 24 hours straight, in anticipation of thousands coming and listening to an all-night-long music party. Kenny Neal was booked to play a set that was to begin at 2 a.m.

Unfortunately for the promoters, a hurricane was bearing down on the Louisiana capital, scheduled to blast straight through the middle of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurapas, up the Amite River and dead-on into Baton Rouge about mid-Sunday morning.

By 10 p.m. Saturday, Catfish Town was deserted. My pal Joe Hunter (who now works as a bass player with Larry Garner and Gatemouth Brown, among others) was working sound and assigned the task of meeting whatever bands showed up, telling them they didn't have to play and handing them their pay. The wind had just started to build as the storm moved towards us. At 1:15 a.m. Kenny Neal's van rolled up after a 12-hour drive home from the Midwest.

The guitarist got out, looking around at the stage set, confused, followed by his brother Darnell and his other brother Graylon Neal Hoffman, each emerging slowly, with the wariness of a road warrior. Finally, as if sure now that he was in the right place, Kenny asked "Where everybody at, Joe?"

"Gone. Hurricane's coming, Kenny."

"We get paid?"

"This is it, got the money right here," answered Hunter as he handed it over.

Kenny Neal looked at the still cloudless sky, looked at his brothers, looked back at Joe and asked, "Can we still play?"

"Well sure, Kenny, I mean, I'll be here. Nobody else, I don't think, but ... "

"Well all RIGHT," Kenny's face brightened as he shouted. "Because I'm here to play some BLUES!"

Kenny's electrifying stage presence, normally so audience-focused, was now re-routed within himself and out of his guitar, and occasionally, his mouth, as he shouted his lyrics into the teeth of a non-stop edge-of-the-storm wind. Standing on the front lip of his stage, his eyes rarely opened, body quivering (instead of his more normal animation) as fingers flew around his instrument, his long hair blowing behind in the wind, his brothers behind him throwing up a perfect funkified wall of blues, Kenny Neal took on the great wind.

The hurricane turned away from Louisiana that night, back into the Gulf of Mexico.

And that's how Joe Hunter, several neighborhood winos and I witnessed a blistering, searing, otherworldly set that we who saw it will always remember as "The Night the Neals Turned Back the Hurricane."

This page © 1997 by Blues Access, Boulder, CO, USA.