Under the studio lights, Kenny Neal's golden harmonica holder shimmers almost as much as the diamond cross hanging around his neck. But neither attracts the audience's attention like his glistening white smile. Short dreadlocks peek out from under what he calls his "jazz hat," one that is wicker and short-brimmed, with three feathers in its black bandanna.
Neal looks toward tonight's guest, Oakland blues and rhythm vocalist E.C. Scott, and sings, "Put on your red dress because we're going out tonight." Scott responds, "My red dress in the cleaners, but my shift will steal the show," adding, "and it's not the back that's cut too low." The camera pans across the cheering audience before Neal and Scott start discussing their first meeting.
Louisiana bluesman Kenny Neal is bringing the soul of blues to the Midpeninsula through public access TV with "Neal's Place," the program he produces through the Media Center in Palo Alto.
Neal jams and reminisces with local and international blues and gospel musicians during 30 minutes of unscripted conversations and improvisational musical performances. He has met the majority of his guests while touring the world with his guitar, harp, six-piece band and soothingly husky voice that sounds like it has a story to tell. In fact, many blues artists he knows have called him asking to be on the show.
Neal also invites musicians whom he has scouted out at Bay Area blues festivals and clubs.
He named the show after the Neal's Place "home restaurant" that his father and greatest musical influence, Raful Neal, established in Baton Rouge. Musicians, tourists and locals alike frequented it to enjoy good music, good company and Neal's mother's soul food. She knows about her son's public access show, but doesn't know it is called "Neal's Place."
"I'm going to surprise her," Neal said.
The restaurant closed in 2002 after Raful became ill and it became too difficult to maintain. He passed away in the fall of 2004. But Neal is determined to perpetuate the establishment's feeling and philosophy with his Palo Alto TV show.
Neal moved to Palo Alto from his hometown of Baton Rouge three years ago to be with his now-wife of two years, Josie.
Recalling this, Neal laughed and said, "It had to be good to get me out of New Orleans," which is his favorite place to play the blues.
Here in Palo Alto, Neal recently saw a television advertisement for the Media Center's programs, and learned that anyone who lives or works in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton or Stanford can produce a public access TV show. He "jumped on it right away," he said. The program first aired on May 27.
"Neal's Place" is just one of many projects Neal has launched during his music career. He has released 16 CDs, starred as the lead in Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes' off-Broadway musical "Mule Bone," toured with his 10 younger siblings and completed a memoir, "I Remember When," which is scheduled to be released later this year. Neal will also begin a tour -- not his first -- of the U.S., Australia, Russia, France and Germany in 2008 after his latest CD is released.
"I don't remember when I started to play," Neal said. But "the older I got," he said, "I noticed that the blues players are all leaving us, so I decided to dedicate myself to blues."
Still, Media Center program director Jesse Norfleet said that "Neal's Place" is anything but self-promotional. It is "not so much selling the musicians as it is selling the music."
Neal wanted to do this show "to pass (blues) on to younger generations who don't know about blues." He said he is interviewing "the last of the last blues musicians," some of whom have included Jimmy McCrakin, Ronnie Stewart, Frankie Lee, Taylor P. Collins and Fillmore Slim.
The show so far has 11 episodes, six of which have aired. Neal wants the show to feel as casual and relaxed as the blues music the audience is hearing. "A script interferes with the vibes," he said.
Usually guests ask, "What we gonna do tonight?" Neal said. Their host jokingly says something like "I don't know."
"But I do know," said Neal, who believes that musicians perform best when they are relaxed. He said he prefers "talking" to "interviewing" and performs many songs with his guests "on the spot."
The home-comfort vibes of "Neal's Place" are catching on. According to the Media Center, the program has attracted 3,000 viewers -- or 10 percent of those who receive channel 27 -- to tune in to each episode.
Norfleet said that the show has also been successful both in the consistency of the studio audience and of the "Neal's Place" crew. The show usually has 15 to 20 studio audience members and many of them have come to multiple tapings.
Palo Alto resident Beverly Wade first came to a taping upon a friend's invitation and now says, "I want to go every week until he goes on tour." She and her husband, Neale, enjoy the show because Neal "seems to be very relaxed and authentic," Neale said.
According to Norfleet, it is rare for a public access producer to retain his or her original crew members as Neal has. Norfleet himself does not have to stay for the tapings, but he does, because "I like Kenny and I love the music. I know that's why the crew shows up."
Neal wants to share the blues with the world, but he still keeps his music in the family and his family in the music. Around the holidays, "we get three generations of Neals together to jam," he said.
When he and his relatives tour together as "The Neal Family," his mother is the manager. And even when Neal tours separately, he still brings six band members who are also his brothers. His wife is also the co-producer of his TV show.
"Neal's Place" is just the first part of Neal's series of efforts to strengthen the blues community in the Bay Area. In the future, he said, he wants to "invite everyone who has been on the show to a festival."
He also plans to take "Neal's Place" to public access TV stations around the Bay Area, and to do blues programs in schools. Kids in those programs, he added, could also later perform on "Neal's Place."
Back on the television set, the cameras have stopped rolling by 11 p.m., but the musical duet continues. The audience and the crew stand up and dance like they've just finished full plates of soul food. Tonight the Media Center is Palo Alto's piece of Baton Rouge.
What: "Neal's Place," a 30-minute TV show featuring local and international blues and gospel musicians with host Kenny Neal
When: Sundays at 8:30 p.m., Mondays at 12:30 p.m., Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 9 p.m. on local cable channel 27.
Info:Go to http://www.communitymediacenter.net . The program can also be watched online there.