John Kay wears dark shades, lots of black and a tight-fitting belt. The guy must work out, if not at the gym, then definitely on stage. He’s got close-cropped hair and a silver goatee. His smile is luminous.

You wouldn’t know this by looking at him on this large stage. But, Kay has described his earlier years with Steppenwolf as a “roller coaster” ride – after all he became famous young and was overwhelmed with the scene.

He wears those glamorous shades for a reason, though. Kay is considered “legally blind” and is also colour blind. But, though physiologically, he sees the world in blacks and greys, he’s learned to compensate sonically and emotionally, just as those he admires most has, for example, legends like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles.

As a boy, he escaped from East Berlin, to West Germany, ultimately going to high school in Canada, but felt strongly about the music and the politics of America. He has spent long stints in California, ultimately moving to Nashville because of the thriving music scene.

The band Steppenwolf was recommended by an Israeli neighbor named Gabriel Mekler, because the man thought it was mysterious. The name stuck, but not the image. .John Kay is not mysterious. His current band is not either. They’re pretty intense and upfront about the music they revere and the way they put it across.

That music has been described as aggressive and given the time that some of it was written, you can understand why.

‘Born to be Wild’ and ‘The Pusher’ put the band on the cultural map after the tunes appeared on the 1968 film soundtrack of ‘Easy Rider.’ And, Kay’s exposure to 60's politics left an indelible mark. Kay remained a political and socially conscious being, though one who, tonight, is quick to add some dynamic shredding to many of his attention-getting statements.

In 1971, Kay broke away from the original Steppenwolf and went solo for two albums. In the 80's he discovered that several local bands had been formed using the Steppenwolf name as their own, causing the original members to experience a sense of betrayal.

But, none of that matters now. The current line-up of Steppenwolf of Gary Link, Ron Hurst, Michael Wilk and Danny Johnson are in top form. Kay looks on top of the world and his voice is in great shape.

As the band plays ‘Ride With Me Till the End of the Day,’ everyone on stage is lit up, from the slide guitar and drum kit to Kay’s almost intimidating stance.

Many of the fans have been around for almost as long as the band has and are called collectively, 'The Wolfpack Fan Club'. Kay has been in the business for over forty years and, astonishingly, shows no sign of wear and tear.

“An important part of our fan base are our motorcycle enthusiasts. They love those two wheel conveniences,” he explains. Kay picks up the blues harp, with confidence, as though it were a ripe apple hanging from a nearby tree. Bassist Gary Link is tan and wears a sleeveless black shirt, Danny Johnson is decked out in his leather vest.

The audience is mixed. A few casual Hawaiian shirts, some guys that could be coveted venue bouncers, and some flirty females are the ones that stick out. Red, white and blue balloons appear on the two screens on either side of the stage. It is, after all, the eve of July 4th and splashes of red, white and blue are to be expected.

“I assume we have some blues fans out there,” Kay says. After the expected cheers, he explains that when he was a boy sticking out his thumb he remembered the influences of Muddy Waters.

Lots of electric lead follows his nostalgic moment and what results is pure 12 bar heaven. ‘Hootchie Cootchie Man’ is well-received. It’s a warm, suburban, beautiful Chicagoland evening and even though, earlier in the week, a few people had suffered from heat stroke, tonight everyone in the audience looked hopeful and happy to be brought back to this genre.

Meanwhile, those screens light up with austere pictures of Delta bluesmen brandishing acoustic guitars. Kay grabs his blues harp after singing gruffly, “I got $7000/Don’t you mess with me.”

What follows is more sobering, but a touching ode to a lost friend, ‘Snowblind Friend’ is an acoustic beauty. “A lot of years we played/You say it was this morning when you last saw your friend…” he sings, with his deep voice resonating over the miles of greenery at this popular outdoor festival.

Another mood shift follows when Kay revisits the America he remembers that was filled with turmoil. He urged the listeners “to strive for what our founding fathers fought for – a more perfect union.”

The song has graphic, explosive lyrics which detail the “slaughter of the red man” and “it’s a monster that will not obey.” Visuals of flag wavers, Bush, Jerry Falwell, the smoke of 911, protestors, soldiers and busy stock exchanges enhance his descriptions.

The jagged riffs and escalating energy of ‘Monster’ was a good example of Kay’s ability to merge political and socially relevant observation with great hooks and blistering guitar.

“America, where are you now?” Kay asks, after which a loud choral response occurs. Meanwhile, a sign reading, “Democracy is not a spectator sport” appears on screen.

“It doesn’t start with Congress/It starts with we the people,” Kay admonishes. The crowd is in his palm; soaking up the political statements and grooving to the rebellious matching music.

He then sings the anthemic ‘Rise and Shine.’ “I’ve been searching for the man I used to be,” he asserts and expects voices to rise as he adamantly sings, “Rise and shine, join your brothers.” It’s standard garage band fare, musically, but as it rubs up against this crowd, they lap it up. Drummer Ron Hurst keeps a stupendous beat all through the many thematic changes.

‘Magic Carpet Ride’ is one of the group’s best-loved remembrances and even smatters of romance. “Close your eyes, girl, look inside, girl…” Kay sings, dreamily.

The attitude could use some lightening up on this holiday weekend and this classic does the job. It also seems to be the time for all to let loose. A handful of dancers claim chunks of the lawn. Kay takes over slide guitar. Psychedelic patters flash from the screens just in time. People start to hang blankets and water bottles on ledges, so they can loosen up and smile at strangers. ‘The fantastic last few bars are heavy on the bass.

Next Kay grins. “Let’s do this together.” ‘Born to Be Wild’ brings everyone out; toddlers on the shoulders and hippie girls, sports freaks and the beer bellied regulars. I mean, this is a Rib Fest and the corn on the cob kiosk still has a few plates left to fill. But, whatever traffic walked through, moments earlier, has stopped.

All hands are up in the air and a guy with a red, white and blue bandana is shaking his head like a cat on a hot tin roof. Kay swings the mike around and holds the stand high above hid head.

Kay puts the guitar back around his neck, and flashes some smiles to front row faces. “We can climb so high/I never want to die…” he sings, dragging that final syllable like it’s the last savoury puff of a penniless man’s cigarette.

Photos by Jim Summaria

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Commenting On: Naperville Rib Fest, Naperville, 3/7/2010 - John Kay and Steppenwolf

ie London, England

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19238 Posted By: Myshkin (London)

Great article, Lisa. Yeah, let's rawwwwwk!!! What a classic Steppenwolf wrote with Born to be Wild. To me it rather sums up the contradictions in American society in the late 60s. It embraces the libertarian ethos of the counter-culture with its anti-establishment stance. But, also still remains firmly welded to the traditionalist principles of individualism and freedom. Great, life affirming, rousing stuff - and the song's not bad too!!

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