originally published on the Local Honey Face Book page
By Ti Tiksa Elaine Thorne
The Charlotte live music scene has always woven a multi-layered tapestry of sound for music fans to wrap their lives and selves in, as well as punctuating their sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, ephemeral moments. A backdrop, if you will, for their most memorable experiences.
From my own personal experience, being born and raised in Charlotte left me with memories of injections of the finest Rock, Country, R&B, Soul, Blues and Beach music that sustained and exhilarated my budding 14-year-old brain and expanding spirit. Injections might be an understatement. It was more like mainlining a missing nutrient for my soul.
In the 60’s and 70’s, I paid $1.50 to get into Park Center to see and hear James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Canned Heat, Steve Miller and $3 to see Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Yes, and Jethro Tull at the Coliseum.
Simultaneously, I was on a drip line IV being constantly fed Charlotte’s best local Southern Rock, Psychedelic rock, British Invasion, Blues, Pop Rock and Roots Rock.
In 1973, I moved away from Charlotte to pursue a life path of bhakti yoga. As some of you may know, this particular yoga path consisted of hours of daily singing, dancing and soul-stirring music dedicated to all-attractive God.
On the inside I am always an aspiring member of Gaura Hari’s 500-year-old tradition of street singing and dancing, as a result, no matter what I do, I have to follow the music.
Seeing and hearing people expressing themselves through their live music gives me a portal that allows me to escape my head. I can literally lose my mind. Idle mental chatter flies away and my heart opens wider for those precious minutes or hours. It creates a connection between myself and the musicians, which not only delights my senses but allows me an enriched human connection I can rarely afford in the fast pace of contemporary life.
Upon returning to Charlotte in 2010, my husband Rob and I went to the Comet Grill on a Friday night to catch an earful live music in a music town I once knew so well.
It was Lenny Federal Band night. Because in Charlotte, Friday night and Lenny Federal Band has become synonymous. He and his band have been playing this gig for 20 years. For 10 years before that, every Sunday the band played Charlotte’s famous Double Door Inn as Federal Bureau of Rock and Roll. Anyone familiar with the life expectancy of bands knows we are talking about a musical institution with that kind of consistency.
On this Friday night, my first at the Comet Grill, I stood in the balcony and swam in the rich textures of authentic Southern Rock that had spoon-fed my youth. It wasn’t just music on the pop charts – it was the music that changed a generation from beatniks into full-fledged, groovin’, jammin’, flower children protesting the Vietnam War in the late 60’s and early 70’s,
Soon,the feeling of the music reawakened the excitement of finding myself as a teenager. It took me back to my roots…
Not having listened to the music of my existential birth for 40 years, Lenny’s guitar brought it all flooding back. I might as well have been a teenager again, listening to The James Gang, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Steve Miller Band, or Greg Allman.
Initially, I couldn’t identify why the song sets were so exhilarating to me. Then, I realized Lenny does something different when playing these iconic musician’s songs. He honors them by effortlessly putting them “right in the pocket,” and then extending them in jam band fashion.
The combination of his soulful guitar and buttery yet raspy voice is entertaining and nurturing. He and his band make history every time they play a vintage song because it’s a little different each time and often includes different musicians. He affords each band member the bliss of the jam by putting their stamp on it.
It’s as my friend across the pond, John Richardson (aka Jayadeva), drummer with the British Pop-Rock band, The Rubettes, describes: Jam is “a spontaneous musical occurrence whereby everyone has a greater time after than they were having before it happened.”
Because The Lenny Federal Band was the first band that I heard live in Charlotte that brought back the sweet nostalgia of the 60’s and 70’s, I wanted to know what made them tick.
This will be the first of many interviews to come with Charlotte’s mighty fine musicians.
I will be interviewing many members of the bands I am fortunate enough to see and hear live. Every member of a band has an equal importance in the band and I want to know them all better.
It makes a difference to me who I spend time listening to. It’s not just the music that gets me to the shows. It’s also the quality of human beings playing the music.
And what’s more, all the musicians I interview give of themselves freely by playing monthly charities year-round, ultimately helping generate thousands of dollars yearly for those in need in our greater Charlotte area.
I think it’s long overdue that these fine musicians get a personal introduction to us all
Lenny Federal is a middle member of one of Charlotte’s largest Irish families, the much-loved Federal clan. Along with his three brothers and five sisters, Lenny basks in the loving glow of their elegant 100-year-old mother, Mary Virginia, who is a big supporter of live music.
I remember seeing Mrs. Federal playfully bopping her head and singing along with Bob Dylan and Kech Sechor’s iconic “Wagon Wheel” at a music event last year. It’s an impressive clan with a revered matriarch. If it wasn’t for the Federal clan, Charlotte’s St. Patrick’s Day parade would be missing something essential. Lenny is the proud father of three sons – Tim, Chris and Mark, a daughter Katie; and is also a happy grandpa.
Lenny’s is a family of gifted hands, with Jill, Lenny’s wife of 14 years, mastering her craft in the healing profession as a Licensed Massage Therapist. He admits it’s quite nice having a massage therapist’s touch in their family. His eyes sparkle when he tells me about his 12-year-old son, Mark’s enthusiasm in piano, cello and singing abilities. Apples don’t fall far from the tree, ya’ll.
Lenny has some serious roots in Charlotte, with both his parents being born here, along with three of his siblings. Because his father was transferred to Georgia, Lenny kept it southern by being born in Columbus, Georgia along with his remaining siblings. He’s a southern treasure with a refined southern accent to prove it.
When Lenny was 19, he and his family moved back to Charlotte by way of Chicago, once again due to his father’s transfer. Nineteen-year-old Lenny was already rockin’ and rollin’ when he and his family moved back to Charlotte in ‘70-’71. He slid right into the already existing music scene much like his now expert 66-year-old fingers slide up and down the neck of his Fender Stratocaster.
Interviewing Lenny allowed me to finally address my ponderings. Getting to the source of the complicated yet easy notes he plays is something that always lingers in my mind after a Friday night at the Comet Grill. So, this interview came with great pleasure and loving admiration of one of Charlotte’s finest musicians.
Ti: Lenny, it sure is a pleasure to finally sit down and have a conversation with you. Can you tell me how your desire and inspiration to play music came about?
Lenny: Well, in my teens, when my brother Michael came back from seminary, he had formed a really good trio called The Wasailers which was very impactful. And by that time the Beatles were very influential. They really got me excited. I was watching Michael succeed at playing professionally and The Beatles were doing it, so I realized it could be done. When I heard all the new music coming out at that time it would make me feel like,” I wish I could do that!”
Ti: How many siblings play professionally?
Lenny: My brother Michael, myself and now my sister Kathleen is getting out there doing her thing too.
Most folks know that Michael went on to play with Bette Midler. He’s had a well-earned career and is still going strong. He just came out with a new CD.
Ti: Do you play other instruments besides guitar?
Lenny: I play guitar, harmonica and a few chords on the piano.
Ti: One thing I’ve noticed when the Lenny Federal Band plays at the Comet Grill on Friday nights is the absence of a set list or song list. I’ve noticed that at the end of one song there’s a few seconds of suspension and the band takes a metaphorical step back, then, your head starts gently rocking back and forth, and you hit a few key notes to tune the rest of the band in. Everybody falls right into the song like falling into great conversation with old friends.
Part of the pleasure of attending live music shows for me is observing musician’s human emotions and imagining what a musician is feeling when they play their music.
What’s happening in those few seconds of suspension between songs for you?
Lenny: I’m just trying to find the right song suitable for that moment… That’s where music is made, in the moment. I mean, there’s something to be said for memorized music but it can become a bit boring, at least for me.
Ti: I think you’ve just nailed what it is about Friday nights at The Comet with the Lenny Federal Band that’s so unique. It’s spontaneous… It’s unscripted.
Lenny: Well, when I put a band together, I think about hiring people that I respect musically and trust to do what it is they do, keep their ears open and play, play like they can play. That’s why you get the best musicians: you can trust them musically.
Ti: I’ve also noticed that you’ll often play a song longer than the original. You play until you are done with it. It will keep going for a while. I love that. I love that because it gives me a chance to get out of my head and into the music.
Lenny: Yeah, there’s nothing like a short, sweet song, compact and to the point like an old 45. That’s what we grew up with. But, when you’re playing three-hour sets, you gotta take some time to stretch out and give the other people in the band time to have some fun on their own.
Ti: I love it when you and the band stretch out the songs. It reminds me of the healing power of shamanic music, repeating beats to access higher realms of consciousness. On Friday nights at The Comet you really give us a lot of spontaneity to sink our teeth into. I think we used to call that jammin’.
Lenny: Yeah, jammin’.
A lot of that comes from The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead. They would always take things and stretch it out. It’s just a way of expressing yourself as they say. Like you’re describing, were just ridin’ it out.
Ti: When you’re riding it out, what do you see being reflected back to you from your audience?
Lenny: Well, I like to see people smiling and anticipating something they’ve never heard before. I like to surprise a little and I like to make people feel like they’re a part of what’s going on.
If you’re playing to an audience, they are a part of what’s going on. It’s a mutual thing.
Ti: How does the loud social atmosphere in venues influence your playing?
Lenny: I mostly react to the energy. Especially at The Comet because we’re there so frequently. I don’t pay attention to the background noise. I just feed off those paying attention and play for them – try to communicate with them.
When I play The Thirsty Beaver it’s the same way. Some people want to talk but for the most part people are into the music. So, like I said, I just feed off that. At unfamiliar venues it’s a little harder because we don’t know what to expect. We just have to do what we do and hope they like it.
Ti: When do you feel most connected to your audience?
Lenny: When I know they’re paying attention and enjoying the music and I’m feeling the energy coming back from the audience. The give and take are good. It’s very positive.
Ti: What can we do as an audience to make your experience of playing for us even better, in the context of our local venues?
Lenny: Request “Freebird” a lot [laughs]. Just keep an open mind when listening to a band. Don’t put bands in a pigeon hole – allow them to play things other than hits.
Ti: Have you found any sweet spots to play where people are hunkering down for live music in Charlotte now that The Double Door is gone?
Lenny: The Comet Grill of course and The Thirsty Beaver, The Visulite, The Neighborhood Theater, The Evening Muse. But, to be fair, I work a lot of nights and I’m a family man so I don’t go out a lot.
Ti: What kind of work do you do when you’re not playing music?
Lenny: I’m a handy man when I have time, but I teach guitar to 20 students, all ages, at The Community School of the Arts and at my personal studio at my house M-W-F, so I’m very busy.
Ti: Wow. I had no idea you were teaching that much. That makes me happy because I know the torch is being passed on with southern finesse. The Charlotte music community is blessed to have you.
I know musicians hate putting their music into genres but if you had to what genre of music does The Lenny Federal Band play? What would people hear if they walked into The Comet for the first time on a Friday night?
Lenny: Hmmm, there’s so many genres these days. It’s not classic rock because we don’t play it like the record. One thing I learned was to go back and listen to your roots, listen to the people that your musical inspirations were listening to. That’s why I say Roots, because it’s stuff that goes back in time and has been a long time coming. You know, no flash in the pan stuff. Although, I did start out listening to Pop music, my focus is deeper now, like with the Blues and old Country. I hope when people first hear us they can identify with what they’re hearing, feel connected to the music and I always hope they’ll give us a chance.
Ti: When I hear you, I hear Southern Rock too.
Lenny: Yeah, that’s where Southern Rock comes from. That’s why I say Roots. It’s an evolution of folk music.
Ti: Is there a part of yourself that is reserved for your time on stage?
Lenny: Not knowingly, but it allows me to get emotions out, like therapy, Primal Scream Therapy. [Ha-ha] It gives me a place to use my energy. As a kid, it was sports. You go out and give it all you got and now that I don’t play sports anymore, this is my sport.
Ti: If you could no longer play music what would you do to fill in the void?
Lenny: Then, I would have to listen to music.
Ti: What would you say helps you lose track of time?
Lenny: Music for sure. Someone said It’s the only way to control time. Music is the main thing that makes time irrelevant.
Ti: You know, Rob and I often plan our social lives around your Friday night performance at The Comet. We celebrate one another’s birthdays there with you every year, we share you with friends and family because you are a local music institution that can always be counted on to keep us grounded in our authentic, musical roots, and actually experience being part of music history every time you play because it’s always different.
Lenny: [Laughing] Well, thank you. I like reoccurring gigs. The thing about a steady gig is you can play what you want, there’s no pressure to do otherwise.
Ti: What would you say The Lenny Federal Bands overall strength is?
Ti: So, if someone is not spontaneous musically, can they play in The Lenny Federal Band?
Lenny: Yes, if someone’s less experienced than you, you play at the level they can and try to support everybody on stage no matter where they’re coming from. That’s what it’s all about.
Ti: How would you like to see the music community improve?
Lenny: We have a great music community, we have great players and I would like to see us all be able to play with other people more often. I like it when we do shows with more than one band. I like to see people playing in different situations. You know, mix it up a little bit. That way you can see people out of their element or where they can show you they’re not just good at one thing. There’s so many good musicians with many more abilities than what can be seen in one performance.
Ti: If there was a tour bus geared up for you and 6 months of gigs booked, would you go?
Lenny: [Laughs] Probably not at this point. I like sleeping in my own bed too much. It’s rough on the road and it’s pretty crazy.
Ti: What gives you peace?
Lenny: I don’t think I’ve found that yet… Probably the closest thing to it is time with my wife, my son and my clan. It can be chaotic but it’s the closest thing to peace for me.
Ti: Its very awesome to be a member of your own bonafide clan!
Lenny: Yeah, It’s a real good feeling to have so many people to care about and care about me.
Ti: Give me one word your mama would use to describe you.
Lenny: Hmmm…. Sweet.
Ti: Oh my. It must be wonderful to know your mother feels that way about you. What word do you think your dad would have chosen to describe you?
Lenny: Probably, handy, although there were times when he would have used other words too, Haha!
Ti: Well, that’s also affirming for a boy to hear from his Dad.
What would you say is one of your personal strengths?
Lenny: I think it’s being able to get along with other people. I believe it comes from growing up with so many people around me. You learn how to respect other people and their space.
Ti: Would you say your personal self-talk is encouraging or discouraging?
Lenny: Encouraging for the most part.
Ti: I’m not surprised, Your playing is always lifting, and that’s coming from inside you.You told me earlier that you aren’t writing much original music at this time in your life. You feel like you’ve hit a dry spell and instead you’re really enjoying playing live and teaching. What would you do if you had a paid year of sabbatical?
Lenny: Well, I’ve always written but I just haven’t finished anything lately, [laughs]. If I had a year sabbatical, I’d have to make an album. I would have to do something, so I’d say, make an album.
Ti: Who are your real-time music mentors?
Lenny: That would be my brother Michael and my friend and music companion of 40 years, John Wicker. John is not only our drummer and singer but also a mighty fine, well-seasoned musician.
Ti: Are there any musicians you’d like to collaborate with locally?
Lenny: There’s so many. And I think I’ve played with a lot of them.I’ve recently enjoyed getting to play with Mike Strauss. I always enjoy getting to play with Rob.
Ti: Have you ever been moved spiritually while playing secular music?
Lenny: Probably not, but I have felt exhilaration.
Ti: When I’m listening to live music I sometimes have a twinge of a spiritual experience. My life experience has revealed that God is the source of our abilities and I feel like I’m witnessing a sacred flow between the Lord and His musicians, especially when everything is in the pocket for a sustained period of time. It deepens my musical experience in a profound way as a witness.
Lenny: I think a lot of playing music is striving for just what you’re describing…that feeling.
Ti: I can’t create the music, but I sure do enjoy it and commune with it.
It’s an honor to talk with you, Lenny. Thank you for your music and thank you for being kind enough to answer a lot of questions in a very busy world.
Lenny: It’s all my pleasure…
As I was interviewing Lenny, I asked him in several different ways about some of his innate qualities and personality traits but he would always do a “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” around the questions. What finally worked was when I asked how his mama would describe him in one word.
Lenny’s mama was right.Share on social media