When Robert Kidney was a twentysomething-year-old musician in the early 1970s, playing local stages with his relatively new and cryptically named band 15-60-75, his hopes and dreams were not about becoming a global rock star racking up Grammy awards and platinum plaques.
Rather, Kidney, now 64 and still leading the band colloquially called “The Numbers Band” after 42 years, was much more pragmatic about his career prospects.
“I don’t have to go back and pour concrete anymore,” Kidney said from his home in Tallmadge. “I might be able to avoid going back to the [Honeywell] damper plant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s what my choices were.”
On Saturday at the Cleveland Art Museum’s Garner Auditorium, Kidney will receive the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement award, honoring four-plus decades of writing and performing original music in Northeast Ohio.
Kidney, who began his music career in his teens as a folk singer before forming the Numbers Band in 1970, was flabbergasted.
“I went ‘wait, what? What are you talking about? I won something?!’ I just couldn’t believe it. I’m still very amazed about the whole thing,” he said.
Later that same night, Kidney and the Numbers Band (featuring original members Terry Hynde on saxophone and Kidney’s multi-instrumentalist brother Jack, along with bassist Bill Watson and newish drummer Clint Alguire) will celebrate their 42nd year as purveyors of their unique brand of blues-inspired rock with a free concert at the Outpost in Kent.
Kidney was nominated by his wife, Janet, who mentioned the award to him in passing. The always-busy singer/songwriter/guitarist quickly forgot about it until he got the call from the nonprofit organization, which has been handing out awards to area artists in a variety of disciplines since 1961.
“I hadn’t realized that she had connected me into this very, very prestigious thing,” Kidney said.
“There’s a lot of people involved, architects, artists, choreographers … [people] outta my league, brother. I’m a working class guy; I don’t know how I got locked in with this,” he said, chuckling.
Cindy Barber, proprietor of the Beachland Ballroom and a 2007 recipient of the associated Martha Joseph Prize for distinguished service to the arts, was part of the 2012 Cleveland Arts Prize music and dance committee that advocated for Kidney.
“What he and his brother and the band have been able to create is music that’s sort of beyond classification, it’s this hybrid blues-jazz-rock ’n’ roll and I can’t think of anybody you can compare it to,” Barber said.
“And the fact that he’s been doing this for over 40 years consistently and plays out every Saturday night almost, and that perseverance of writing songs and dedication to his music even though he’s worked a day job and had all kinds of adversity in his life and he continues to have that love of the craft,” she said.
“He really is one of Northeast Ohio’s true legends.”
Barber will present Kidney during the ceremony, followed by a brief speech by the man himself [“They gave me a minute … I’ve got my speech down to 25 seconds,” he said] and a duo performance by the Kidney Brothers of the song Rosalee, which was recorded by the Pretenders on their 2008 album Break Up the Concrete.
Then Kidney, who underwent a kidney transplant more than a decade ago and is recovering from recent serious knee surgery that left him with a 14-inch scar, will exhibit his “working class guy” ethic, making the trek from Cleveland to Kent to perform at the Numbers Band’s 42nd anniversary show.
Kidney is quick to credit any success he and the band have had to the dedication and hard work of fellow founding members, brother Jack and Hynde, who have been a part of the band’s “long journey” since the beginning, when they were often playing to 600-plus fans in four nights in area clubs and bars, and as the house band at the Cove.
“And of course it all changed, and things got very hard and tough when the [Vietnam] war was over and the economy shifted. Musical tastes change and things change, and all that we went through. But in the beginning we got off to a really wonderful start, and I just hung with it and my brother hung with it and Terry hung with it, and it’s amazing, 42 years later,” he said.
The anniversary show, as always, is free to honor their fans, an important aspect for Kidney and the band.
“After all, the only reason we’re still here after 42 years is because they still come to hear us,” Kidney said.
“If they weren’t coming to hear us we would not exist, and that’s extremely important. If you could write that in big bold letters, because I certainly realize it and I want people to know that that’s why we are here, because they are coming to hear us.”
For the anniversary show the Numbers Band will play songs from their fabled 1976 album Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town, revive some songs they haven’t played in years, and throw in a few newly written songs and tunes from their strong 2009 album The Inward City, produced by longtime band friend and champion David Thomas of Pere Ubu and Rocket From the Tombs.
Special guests include former guitarist Mike Stacey (whose current band, Why Not Mike is opening the show) who played on Jimmy Bell, and other past members including drummer Anton Fier and guitarist Mike Bubnow.
In addition to the award and the anniversary show, 15-60-75 is also the subject of a documentary that has been in production for a year by local music fan and filmmaker Jason Prufer.
The film will delve into the history of the band and its place in the music scene in and around Kent.
The band plans an accompanying soundtrack of live recordings for the film, and a new deluxe re-release of their debut on the label Exit Stencil. It will be on double vinyl with extra tracks recorded by WMMS at the Agora within a month of the Jimmy Bell show.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.