Leon Redbone to help Kent Stage turn three this weekend

Andrew Hampp

The Kent Stage celebrates its third anniversary this weekend. Michelle Simpson is one of the founders.

Credit: Andrew Hampp

Just over a month ago, Leon Redbone did something he’d never done before.

He canceled a concert while on tour.

And not just any concert, but the third anniversary concert of The Kent Stage, the City of Kent’s largest musical venue and host to a variety of performers over the last third of a decade.

Although the show was rescheduled and will now be taking place this Sunday at 7 p.m., Redbone apologized for his last-minute cancellation.

“I got this strange virus that must’ve been imported from somewhere,” Redbone said in his trademark gravelly voice. “Whenever I get any kind of ailment or virus, the first thing it hits is my throat.”

The notoriously private former member of the “Saturday Night Live” band paused for a moment and then considered his statement.

“Maybe I shouldn’t give this information to my enemies,” Redbone said with a laugh. “They will know the secret to my weakness is not in my heel but leads straight to my throat.”

Redbone will bring his signature vaudevillian-style blend of folk, blues and ragtime updates of classic songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Polly Wolly Doodle” to a venue that originally played host to movies instead of concerts.

Michelle Simpson, spokesperson for The Kent Stage, said the venue has had a rich history in the Kent area for the better part of the last century. The Stage was originally built to be a vaudeville venue, and was even rumored to have had a few famous performers swing by.

“There’s a rumor saying that W.C. Fields performed here at one time in his career,” Simpson said. “I’m not sure that that’s been proven but it’s a popular story around Kent.”

The Kent Stage then evolved into a movie theatre just as talking pictures gained popularity in the 1930s.

The venue continued to play host to films (including its final stint as a dollar theatre) right up until 2002, when Simpson, her husband Tom, assistant director of Kent’s Office of Campus Life and several other investors purchased the building and restored it to its roots as a live-act venue.

And not just any live-act venue, Simpson said, but one with exceptional sound quality.

“There are fabulous acoustics in here,” she said. “When we had Nickel Creek here (last year) they shut all their sounds down and did their concert without any amplification. Everybody here in the back balcony could hear them clear in the back row. We even won an award for best acoustic theatre in Northeast Ohio this year.”

Playing with good acoustics was also important to Redbone, having played a less-than-stellar show in Boston last weekend.

“(It was) a very old theatre mostly designed for acoustic performance in the sense of an orchestra,” said Redbone, who will be backed up by longtime cornet player Scott Black and Paul Asaro on piano.

“(My) performance will be understated — low lighting, with fast songs, slow songs and medium songs with accompaniment.”

Redbone is one of the Kent Stage’s more high profile bookings, following December’s performance from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bo Diddley and other recent gigs from Joan Baez, Over The Rhine, India.Arie and Janis Ian. Simpson said she would love to book even more big draws, it’s just hard for a venue that only seats 633 people.

“I would love to see Arlo Guthrie,” Simpson said of the performer she’d most like to book. “I have seen him (live) but I would love to see him perform on our stage. I think Tom has actually looked into his availability several times but it didn’t work out with our scheduling.”

As for any other goals Simpson has for the theatre, Simpson said she would like to see more Kent students coming out to the shows.

“I think we would really like to continue to reach out to more people,” she said. “We would like to see a lot of students from Kent State come out and experience The Kent Stage. We’ve booked several shows with artists we thought students would like. We have some students, but not a lot, so I think it would be nice to see them give it a try. It’s close by and it’s not that expensive.”

Redbone, however, just looked forward to returning to Ohio.

“I like Ohio,” he said. “It’s a wonderful state, especially for new restaurants. They always like to pass one through Ohio before taking it national. You guys sure have lots of Bob Evans(es). You’re living in the template for the United States.”

Contact Pop Arts editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].