Self-taught musical genius Mike Keneally was born on 20 December, 1961 (just one day before Frank Zappa's 21st birthday) in Long Island, NY, USA. Keneally plays guitar and keyboards, sings and composes, and produces and does a lot of other things, creating amazing pieces of music which are nearly impossible to categorize with any of the labels generally imposed on modern music. Some categorize Keneally as 'progressive rock'. Some call him 'fusion jazz/rock'. Some like to label him as they would label that man who took Keneally under his wing in 1988, Frank Zappa, which is a unique classification in itself. As one would label Zappa's music simply 'Zappa's Music', one would label Keneally's music as simply 'Keneally's Music'.
Mike Keneally did not grow up in a particularly musically inclined family. Mike's first musical instrument was a small organ given to him on his seventh birthday, which he hadn't asked for. Soon little Mikey was playing The Rolling Stones' 'Paint It Black' with little effort. This was the very humble beginning of the musical genius we know today. Later a friend introduced him to Frank Zappa and everything for Keneally would change forever.
On his 11th birthday, Keneally received his first guitar along with a copy of Frank Zappa and the Mothers' Fillmore East June 1971 album. While his interest in guitar was minimal, his brother Marty picked up the guitar and his interest in music began. Mike and Marty began to play and record together through the 1970s. Mostly, they did cover versions of Santana and CSNY, with a few weird original songs thrown in for good measure.
Throughout the 1980s, Keneally was quite adept at keyboards but was also playing guitar for fun. He was learning Zappa tunes in what can only be called a sort of psychically influenced job preparation for his future. Keneally continued to play in clubs with his brother Marty in a band called Graphic. One day in 1985, Keneally called the 818-PUMPKIN hotline to the Zappa family. In those days Frank answered the phone occasionally, and on this particular day when Mike called, Frank himself answered! In the course of their conversation Keneally mentioned that his dream was to some day work with him, to which Zappa responded, 'Keep dreaming. I'm never going on the road again.'
Meeting Frank Zappa
Keneally continued to play in Los Angeles clubs with his brother Marty for a couple more years. Around this time, Mike called 818-PUMPKIN again and the recorded message informed him that Zappa was in rehearsals with a new band. At first Keneally only saw this as an opportunity to see Zappa live again, but the more he thought about it, the more he realised that this could be his last chance to make his dream come true. So the next day, Keneally called the hotline again and reached a man named Gerald Fialka whom he informed that he could play guitar and keyboards and could sing as well. He also mentioned that he was very familiar with the Zappa repertoire and would like a chance to audition. Keneally was thanked for the information and he hung up thinking nothing would come of this, but he was called back with a chance to audition for Zappa the very next night, but had to turn it down owing to a gig with his own band. He later discovered, however, that the venue he was supposed to be playing had booked another band, so after a miserable weekend, Keneally called 818-PUMPKIN again on Monday and left a message. The next day he got a call from Frank Zappa himself.
Zappa challenged Keneally to come up to his house and prove his claim of knowing the complete Zappa repertoire. He instructed him to come up that evening to audition and to be prepared to play 'What's New in Baltimore?' and 'Sinister Footwear II', both of which Mike did not know! During the drive to Zappa's house in LA Mike learned these and several other Zappa tunes, and after a successful audition, which obviously impressed Zappa, Mike was invited to return to the next rehearsal so the rest of the band could see him play. After a succession of alternately disastrous and impressive rehearsals with Zappa and the band, Keneally was invited to join the band.
The 1988 Zappa tour was a complete success for Keneally on vocals, keyboards and 'stunt guitar'. Fans and band members alike were quickly impressed by the 'new guy'. Since then, along with his solo albums and work with Beer for Dolphins, Keneally has also recorded or performed with XTC, Robert Fripp, Sting, Kevin Gilbert, Steve Vai and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, to name but a few. You can get all the information you could ever hope to find about the man at the Official Mike Keneally Website.
Among Keneally's discography there are few works that do not stand out as masterpieces of modern composing and performing. The most recent release from late 2000, Dancing, by Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins, debuted at Number 167 on The Billboard 200 chart. Critics praised the album, and fans called it 'a revelation' and 'an innovation of Keneally's signature sound'. Dancing can easily be called Keneally's best work to date and maybe even one of the best releases of the year 2000. This album is a departure from previous releases that were more 'rock' oriented. On Dancing we find Keneally experimenting with a more jazz/fusion sound reminiscent of Frank Zappa's Grand Wazoo era bands. We have horns and percussion instruments throughout this release that signify a more polished side of the 'Keneally sound'.
In the Beer for Dolphins Dancing lineup we have the lovely and extremely talented Tricia Williams on percussion and marimba, the excellent saxophone and flute work of Evan Francis, the trumpet of Chris Opperman, who sadly is no longer a part of the Dancing tour lineup, and Rick Mussalum on guitar and backing vocals. On drums is Jason Smith, who was a part of Keneally's 1998 touring band. Smith has since been replaced by Nick D'Virgilio, drummer extraordinaire from the progressive rock band, Spock's Beard. On keyboards and vocals is Mark Ziegenhagen, another standout from the 1998 band who now takes over full keyboard responsibilities from Keneally. And last but certainly not least Bryan Beller, longtime Keneally cohort, on bass.
Keneally's 1999 solo album Nonkertompf, performed and composed by Keneally in its entirety, is perhaps one of the least accessible albums to new fans. Nonetheless, it is a piece of pure genius. There is enough here to entice any fan of wonderful guitar work reminiscent of Frank Zappa at his most experimental stages. The origins of the whole conception of this album can be traced back to a childhood dream of Keneally's: the musical textures certainly transport one into a dream-world of beautiful, haunting, scary and often hilarious sounds.
1997's Sluggo!, is probably the most appropriate album to introduce new listeners to Keneally. This album is certainly more 'rock' oriented and even downright radio-friendly at times, while certainly not lacking at all in the experimentalism and originality department. This release is deeply rooted in progressive and classic rock sounds.
Whichever direction the listener wants to go in, it can certainly be said that there is something in Keneally's discography for everyone. This is a man who transcends labels and genres and simply writes and performs beautiful and complex pieces of music.
1988: Frank Zappa - Broadway the Hard Way
1990: Dweezil Zappa - Confessions
1991: Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Black Music for White People
1991: Frank Zappa - The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life
1991: Frank Zappa - You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, vol. 4
1992: Frank Zappa - Make A Jazz Noise Here
1992: Frank Zappa - You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, vol. 6
1992: Mike Keneally - Hat
1993: Zappa's Universe
1993: Zappa's Universe - Choice Morsels
1993: Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Stone Crazy
1993: Z - Shampoohorn
1994: Mike Keneally - Boil That Dust Speck
1994: Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Somethin' Funny Goin' On
1995: Tales from Yesterday (Yes Tribute) Stanley Snail - 'Siberian Khatru'
1995: Supper's Ready (Genesis Tribute) Kevin Gilbert - 'Back in N.Y.C.'
1995: The Mistakes - The Mistakes
1995: Frank Zappa - Strictly Commercial [LP vinyl only]
1995: Frank Zappa - Kill Ugly Radio Some More
1995: Z - Music for Pets
1996: Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins - Half Alive in Hollywood
1997: Mike Keneally - The Tar Tapes Vol 1
1997: Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins - Sluggo!
1997: Steve Vai - G3 Live In Concert
1997: Steve Vai - Merry Axemas - A Guitar Christmas
1998: Frank Zappa - Cheap Thrills
1998: Steve Vai - Flex-Able Leftovers
1997: Mike Keneally - The Tar Tapes Vol 2
1998: Chris Opperman - Oppy Music, Vol I: Purple Crayon
1999: Mullmuzzler - Keep it to Yourself
1999: Frank Zappa - Son of Cheep Thrills1
1999: Mike Keneally - Nonkertompf
2000: Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa
2000: Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins - Dancing
2001: James Labrie's Mullmuzzler - II
2001: "NDV" Nick D'Virgilio - Karma
2001: Steve Vai - Alive in an Ultra World
2002: Mike Keneally - Wooden Smoke