'Lead dog' shares stage with Leiderman
Pianist Kevin Barnett played his first paying gig in fifth grade: a performance of “Taps” at the local American Legion hall.
Barnett never looked back.
Today the 52-year-old Eagle River resident has played piano from New York City to Hawaii, Korea to the Czech Republic. Barnett played for 21 years in Air Force bands. He’s performed with rock and roller Del Shannon and pop group Joey Dee and the Starlighters. He released his first album last year.
“I’ve been blessed — I’ve been able to make all my living making music,” Barnett said Monday during an interview at the duplex he shares with wife, Regina, and 4-year-old husky mix, Kaya.
This weekend, Barnett performs in Anchorage with B.J. Leiderman, the composer who wrote the theme music for several National Public Radio news programs and shows.
Barnett himself wrote the theme song for the “Hometown, Alaska” weekly call-in show heard on Alaska Public Radio Network’s Anchorage station, KSKA. The two musicians met earlier this year when KSKA brought them together for a “Hometown, Alaska” segment.
The performance will start at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. It’s part of the APRN Speaker Series. Leiderman and Barnett will perform separately and together, joined by the Anchorage Youth Symphony. Promotional spots on KSKA running for the past weeks talk up the show by Leiderman and “Eagle River’s own Kevin Barnett.”
Barnett’s not exactly famous here, though he spent several years playing piano at Saint Andrew Catholic Church.
“I think I’m more known in Anchorage than in my own hometown,” he said. “I kind of like that.”
Barnett has come a long way from that first gig; he remembers opening the American Legion’s thank-you card and telling his father that someone accidentally dropped some money in the envelope.
But he’s known since those elementary-school days in Green Bay, Wisc. that he wanted to make music his career.
Barnett came from a musical family. His mother and great-aunt, both pianists, taught him piano starting at age 3. His sister also plays piano.
His father, a part-time cellist with the symphony, hammered a work ethic into his children that included rising before 5 a.m. to do chores and practice before school even started. His mother was tough too; as Barnett puts it, she was the task master, his father the "dreamer artist."
By high school, Barnett was practicing four hours a day; six hours in summer. He started out with classical training, but incorporated jazz.
His father told him the players in the symphony who didn’t hurt for money played not only classical but other styles of music, like polka or jazz.
Barnett played three to five nights a week while still in high school, at churches or for private functions. The summer he graduated, he started playing clubs. It took him six years to get through college at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, where he graduated with a BA in Music (Applied Piano) and later went on to get a Master Certificate in Music Production and Technology from Berklee College of Music.
Barnett currently performs with the Kevin Barnett Quartet for Arctic Siren Productions’ First Friday Cabarets; his jazz group the Lovin’ Dog Kennel Club with local singer Cat Coward; and with the rock group Chill Factor.
He composes music, handles recording/engineering in his home studio, and works as a freelance musician, playing events like weddings or funerals.
Barnett’s released an album, “alpenglow,” in March 2010. The CD jacket describes the 13 selections as depicting “the many moods and impressions of winter in Alaska.”
Track number 11 - the upbeat “Lead Dog” - is the song that the “Hometown, Alaska” radio show made its theme. It was inspired by the nearly universal urban Alaskan experience of chasing your husky mix around the block.
As Barnett tells it, Kaya escaped onto Driftwood Bay Drive after some piano movers accidentally let her out. She ended up at nearby Alpenglow Elementary, happily avoiding the attempts of three different classes to grab her.
Barnett clocked her at 35 mph as she loped along. He eventually got her in his pickup.
“That tune was written with her in mind,” he said.
A much darker number on the album, “Permafrost,” describes an otherwise happy, upper-middle class family floored by “something that happens at the dinner table,” Barnett said. “It’s kind of like permafrost - you don’t really know how far down it goes.”
Barnett’s got more albums in the works. He’s written 22 pieces since May.
For more information about Saturday’s performance with BJ Leiderman, go to www.alaskapublic.org/2011/07/18/aprn-speaker-series/