Saturday, November 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Music community rallies around producer Steve Connelly

RECOMMENDED READING


Musicians struggle to put the Steve Connelly touch into words.

"He records bands in this almost supernatural way," Robert Vessenmeyer said.

"Steve," Natty Moss Bond said, "goes somewhere the rest of us don't go."

Ask almost any local artist about Connelly, and you'll hear more of the same. Connelly, who turns 62 on Tuesday, has for decades been among the Tampa Bay music scene's most ubiquitous personalities. As a guitarist, he was signed to a national label, appeared on the Tonight Show and played a stadium with the Grateful Dead. As a producer, he's brought life to hundreds of songs at his Zen Recording in Pinellas Park, each bearing that hard-to-define Connelly touch.

This year, musicians are giving back to Connelly at a time he needs it most. He has hepatitis C, a diagnosis he chalks up to "the decadence of the punk rock era," that resulted in cirrhosis of the liver. He's awaiting a transplant that could come as early as this summer. And in March, a ceiling collapsed at Zen, effectively halting Connelly's livelihood.

Connelly's musician friends launched a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $12,000 since late March, much of it from other cash-strapped artists. And Saturday, 15 bands will take the stage for a benefit concert at Skipper's Smokehouse.

It's not easy, defining what a good producer means. The poster for the Skipper's show pictures Connelly, arms crossed and smiling, beneath a breathless string of hosannas: FATHER BROTHER UNCLE FRIEND TEACHER MUSICIAN GUITARIST PRODUCER ARTIST WRITER DREAMER LEGEND.

• • •

Connelly is a professorial fellow, slight and soft-spoken. His friend Ronny Elliott often calls him a "delicate genius."

He started out "a good Catholic boy" in Largo, the son of a pitching prospect in the Dodgers organization. Connelly was a pretty good ballplayer, too, but his life revolved around music.

At Largo High School, he was a straight-A student who excelled in music theory and played tuba in the marching band — at least until the time he skipped a football game to go see a psychedelic band at a local teen club.

In the '70s, he developed a taste for folk rock that informed his best-known band, the Headlights. Their jangly Americana sound resonated far beyond Tampa Bay, earning them $20,000 in a nationwide band battle and the chance to record at Willie Nelson's ranch. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds loved the Headlights so much he hired them as his backing band; together, they played for Johnny Carson and opened for acts like ZZ Top and the Dead.

When the Headlights signed with Nashville's Airborne Records in 1987, Connelly started getting interested in production. The band, he said, had a budget of $80,000 for its Airborne debut, but he winced at how much of that money was wasted on parties, fine dinners and drinks.

When the Headlights called it a career in the mid '90s, Connelly moved more behind the boards. A wealthy client in Seminole built a home studio for his wife and brought Connelly in as their resident producer. Zen Recording, they called it, a nod to a nearby zen garden.

Connelly advocates purity and simplicity, guiding artists toward what's right and wrong for a song in any given moment. Elliott recalls recording a song called South By So What that would've featured Connelly on lead guitar.

"When the guitar solo came, he just let the track go right through," Elliott said. "He didn't play a note for the solo. … I don't sit around and listen to my records, but when I hear that song, I realize how perfect that was."

• • •

Connelly and his landlords still aren't sure what prompted the ceiling collapse at Zen but say the fact that its tiles and walls were more than 30 years old had a lot to do with it. Connelly said the debris was up to his eyes.

Since the collapse, Connelly has considered offers to work elsewhere. His health is insured through the Affordable Care Act, but still, the bills pile up.

But Zen is his. Along with his business partners, he had moved it from that home studio to its location in Pinellas Park. A laundry list of local musicians have recorded albums within its cedar walls: Rebekah Pulley; Will Quinlan; Have Gun, Will Travel; the Ditchflowers.

Many of those who have donated to the GoFundMe see it as payback for all the times Connelly didn't charge them for studio time or took home raw master tapes to mix late at night.

"There's a million people who just adore him," said Bond, one of the concert's organizers. "I'm hearing from fans all day — 'How can I help? Can I do something at the benefit? I can work the door, I can do this, I can do that.' "

Connelly is humbled by the support, but he also feels energized. He's timing his many liver treatments so Saturday will be a good day. He tends to tire easily from the 65 extra pounds of fluid that built up on his angular frame, but he knows almost every artist on Saturday's bill might ask him to sit in.

He has a half-dozen or so projects on hold or in the works at Zen. The ceiling is barren of acoustical tile, but he's restored an isolation booth to record vocals and some instruments. Over the summer, as he awaits word on a liver transplant, he'll ponder whether Zen can and should continue.

"There's a certain point where it's foolish thinking I have a future in this," he said. "But I think I can make it happen for a few more years."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Comments
Flo Rida coming to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg

Flo Rida coming to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg

In 2016, Flo Rida headlined a free postgame concert for the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium.Come January, he'll have the place all to himself.The Carol City hitmaker will top a show at Al Lang on Jan. 14. St. Petersburg. native Macy Kate will al...
Updated: 13 minutes ago
Bluegrass and a traditional Thanksgiving meal on tap at annual Sertoma festival

Bluegrass and a traditional Thanksgiving meal on tap at annual Sertoma festival

SPRING LAKE — When it comes to traditional fare, picking, fiddling, harmonizing and a whole lot of foot-stomping make for the main course at the annual Thanksgiving Bluegrass Festival.Since 1980, the event, which will be Nov. 23 to 25 at the Sertoma ...
Published: 11/17/17
Two weeks after Tampa concert, rapper Lil Peep dies at 21

Two weeks after Tampa concert, rapper Lil Peep dies at 21

Lil Peep, a driving force in the young, ascendant, genre-blurring world dubbed "SoundCloud rap" or "emo rap," has died at 21, less than two weeks after performing at the Orpheum in Ybor City.TMZ reported the Long Beach, N.Y. rapper born Gustav Ahr di...
Published: 11/16/17
Randy Newman talks Dodger baseball, his ’70s collaborators, measuring himself against his peers and more

Randy Newman talks Dodger baseball, his ’70s collaborators, measuring himself against his peers and more

Randy Newman was always widely respected by his peers. But back in the '70s, it took him a while to accept he might never be as famous as his peers."I remember hearing Just the Way You Are in a hotel," he said in a recent phone interview. "I was tryi...
Published: 11/16/17
SoundBytes: Yonder Mountain String Band, Robb Banks, Datsik and more

SoundBytes: Yonder Mountain String Band, Robb Banks, Datsik and more

— Jammy bluegrassers Yonder Mountain String Band will make their annual pilgrimage back to Jannus Live on Jan. 25. Click here.— Also coming to Jannus Live: JJ Grey and Mofro with a stellar lineup, including the North Mississippi Allstars,...
Published: 11/15/17
Harry Belafonte to speak at the University of South Florida in Tampa

Harry Belafonte to speak at the University of South Florida in Tampa

Singer, actor and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte is coming to Tampa.The renowned cultural figure will speak at the University of South Florida on Jan. 16 as part of the school's student-run University Lecture Series. It'll take place in the Marsha...
Published: 11/15/17
Vans Warped Tour, a staple on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, ending after 2018

Vans Warped Tour, a staple on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, ending after 2018

For fans and bands alike, the Vans Warped Tour is a sweaty, smelly, screamy rite of summer.Every year, like clockwork, the fest swings through Tampa Bay, almost always at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, where hordes of tattooed teenagers, punks and met...
Published: 11/15/17
This week’s top Tampa Bay concerts: Randy Newman, Tiesto, Et Cultura, more

This week’s top Tampa Bay concerts: Randy Newman, Tiesto, Et Cultura, more

THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE: Randy NewmanOscar campaigns are nothing new for Randy Newman. For years, the iconic singer, songwriter and film composer was the most-nominated person in history without a win, until his 2001 trophy for the Monsters Inc. song If...
Published: 11/15/17
Randy Newman will never be a million-seller, and he’s fine with that

Randy Newman will never be a million-seller, and he’s fine with that

Maybe it’s fitting that the Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t win the World Series. Maybe it’s better that all of Southern California didn’t pop Champagne and celebrate as Randy Newman’s I Love L.A. blared through the Dodger St...
Published: 11/15/17
The Castle, Ybor City’s goth paradise, celebrates 25 years of darkness and weirdness

The Castle, Ybor City’s goth paradise, celebrates 25 years of darkness and weirdness

The Castle, the multi-story, gothic nightclub where it's not uncommon to see someone on the dance floor in a Batman cape, a leather corset or a Peter Pan costume — or really anything you can think of — turned 25 this year, which...
Published: 11/15/17