Neal Family Fest returns with more ‘soul’

As he has for three consecutive years, Kenny Neal, of Baton Rouge’s internationally known blues performers, is spearheading his own local music festival.

Formerly called Kenny Neal’s Family & Friends Heritage Blues Fest, the event returns this year with a new name. Kenny Neal’s Family & Friends Blues & Southern Soul Festival is Saturday at the West Baton Rouge Parish Multi-Purpose Arena in Port Allen.

Featuring an all-local bill, performers include the King Pharaoh Session Band and the Neal family of musicians, including Kenny Neal and his brothers Larry, Lil’ Ray, Noel, Graylin, Fredrick and Darnell, Neal sisters Charlene and Darlene and many nephews and grandchildren.

Adding ‘Southern Soul” to the festival’s name, Kenny Neal explained, is way to broaden the event’s appeal.

“We know we’ve got the blues area covered,” he said. “But we’ve also got a lot of folks down here who love Southern soul. So, instead of ‘Heritage,’ I put ‘Southern Soul’ in because, in this area, Southern soul really works.”

Neal expects to hire popular Southern soul singers such as Willie Clayton, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Mel Waiters and Millie Jackson for future Blues & Southern Soul Festivals.

“People will get the picture,” he said.

Despite cold, rainy weather during last year’s festival, attendance reached nearly 800. Although the West Baton Rouge Parish Multi-Purpose Arena has a roof over it, its sides are open to the elements. Staging the festival in June for the first time, Neal hopes the venue’s eight large ceiling fans will help the arena stay cool.

Neal plans to continue the festival for years, even decades, to come.

“I’m going to keep picking at it,” he said. “I want to bring something to the community and also give the local guys, even the nonprofessionals, an opportunity to come out and do their thing.”

Neal wants the festival to grow into a major event that draws thousands.

“As big as New Orleans (the Jazz and Heritage Festival),” he said. “Right now, if I wanted to, I could make it bigger, but I want it to develop, instead of going full force with the chance of losing a ton of money.”

Neal hopes to receive support from Port Allen next year.

“I’ve been doing it all out of pocket, myself, but now the city of Port Allen is interested in working with me,” he said.

This year’s festival’s grand finale features a tribute to the late Jackie Neal. The performers will include the singer’s original backup singers and band members and sisters Charlene and Darlene.

“All of the female vocalists are going to share Jackie’s songs,” Neal said. “And we’re going to bring the grandkids out as well, throughout the set. Lil Ray’s grandchildren, they love to sing. Jackie’s grandchildren, they didn’t know their grandmother but they do know her because we haven’t let Jackie’s name die.

“Jackie’s grandchildren are totally aware of their grandmother and what she did. And they sing her songs like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like the good Lord gave Jackie back to us a couple of times over because she’s got two little granddaughters who are just like her.”