There's comfort in being retro. There're also rules. To turn your retro vibe into a lasting musical statement and style, you must have some element of originality, flair and musical know-how. The trick is to avoid crossing the line where the rock & roll salute crumbles into tepid imitation. Any would-be classics-miner should create a joyous, complex reinterpretation of music that has become a part of the pop-culture pantheon.
Enter progressive retro-funk rocker and soul man Lenny Kravitz. What's that you say? Aren't progressive and retro contradictory? Not really. Kravitz has managed to bring his own personality into his retro shtick.
Kravitz has long lurked in other musicians' shadows -- especially Prince's regal, monomaniacal, purple one. In Kravitz's early Romeo Blue period, he positively aped Prince's persona. But Kravitz has produced a stack of subsequent music that, in the end, bears his own Afrohippie signature even as it flirts with sounds from the Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Hendrix and Zeppelin catalogs. It only makes sense that this 1970s-loving style hipster would be opening for original '70s rockers Aerosmith at Bobcats Arena this Thursday.
Charlotte musician and South Carolina native Kenny Floyd is also a retro rocker of sorts. His new album, Water, overlaps with the style of his hero, Lenny. Floyd's songs, like "Flat Bed Truck," "Just Friends" and "Go 4 Me," show kinship and retro-bonding with early Kravitz (not to mention a thing 4 Prince-like titles). Floyd's ballad, "Just Friends," could have come from the Kravitz songbook.
It's obvious Floyd loves not only classic rock & roll, but musical freethinkers as well. He puts those elements to work on Water, an amalgam of rock, pop and metal. Floyd's vocal sound straddles between those of Darius Rucker and Eddie Vedder, but with a hint of soaring falsetto. Like Kravitz, Floyd fills his good-time music with funk and classic-rock riffs. Whether he's playing originals with his band or rocking a bar doing covers on an acoustic guitar, Floyd manages to create a party atmosphere without the aid of mack-daddy sequined duds or flashy sunglasses. (Floyd resembles George Foreman -- the provenance of his recent Halloween costume -- more than any Hendrixesque sex god.)
You can catch Floyd on Jan. 13 at Boardwalk Billys and the following night at Galway Hooker in Lake Norman. But these back-to-back gigs are rare: "I have chosen to only play one full band show a month at [local bar] Tipsy McStumbles. They are one of the few venues that I know of that ... allow us to play 100-percent originals. You just can't beat that."
There are times an independent musician begins to lose faith after repeated setbacks, but Floyd carries on. "A co-worker told me, 'Kenny, you being a musician is a blessing not a curse.' I let him hear some of my work from my college band, Shades of Grey. He told me, 'You don't belong in an office setting; you need to be out making music.' That is one of the things I use when I feel like I want to quit."
When queried about the dearth of black rockers who have succeeded, Floyd is blunt: "The only time someone's race or ethnic background seems to come into play is when you talk about the marketability of music. I think there are black, Asian, Indian, fat, skinny, tall, short, rich, poor and all other kinds of rockers out there. The industry chooses what they think people will like enough to produce a profit. I have no control in that. I am who I am. I have dealt with various blatant racist situations throughout my musical career. I don't focus on those isolated instances. I am there to play my heart out, so that is what I do."
Retroman Kravitz has experimented with his music, but never strays far from his template of Hendrix, Beatles and 1970s funk-rock. Indeed, his long-shelved Funk opus, recorded in New Orleans in the late 1990s, is finally on the front burner for release. Kenny Floyd is a likeminded compatriot, donning his cowpoke hat and strapping on his geetar to ably lay down tunes that stand the test of time. Kravitz may be critically maligned and mocked, but his perseverance and good tunes have swelled his legion of fans. There's no reason why a songcrafter the caliber of Floyd, from Charlotte, can't also reach arena-rock heights.
"You don't like me, fine, you don't like the music or styles I play, fine," says Floyd, "but neither of those are valid reasons Charlotte, NC, should not have one of the strongest music scenes on the East Coast. We have the talent. Most importantly, we have the support of the people."
To push Water, Floyd is planning a springtime tour with local band Extra Medium. He's also done a music video for "Go 4 Me" that's awaiting editing for airplay. A huge fan of Aerosmith and Kravitz, Floyd dreams of the day his band can share that bill: "Well," he says, "a man can dream, can't he? I would flip a wig on that stage."
Lenny Kravitz opens for Aerosmith on Jan. 12 at their sold-out show in the Charlotte Bobcats Arena. Kenny Floyd plays on Jan. 13 at Boardwalk Billys and Jan. 14 at Galway Hooker in Lake Norman. For music and more details, visit kennyfloyd.com and cdbaby.com.