by Lou Mancinelli
In the early 1990s, when the economy turned sour, Wyndmoor resident and acoustic blues musician Andy Kimbel, then an airline pilot, was placed on furlough, or a temporary leave of absence. The pilot, and father of two, who went to Lower Merion High School and graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, located in Florida, in 1978, had spent more than 1,000 hours teaching others to fly at the North Philadelphia Airport and countless hours working as a commercial and freight pilot, but now he had lots of free time.
“I thought the furlough would only be for a few months,” said Kimbel, 55. So he “grabbed his guitar” and started playing open mic nights in 1992 at the Samuel Adams Brew House, then located at 1516 Sansom St. in Center City. (It’s now home to the Oyster House.)
His girlfriend at the time, Susan, whom he later married, urged Kimbel to play the open mic since he’d been playing music since he was 9. In the sixth grade, he played Rolling Stones-inspired rock ‘n’ roll with The Dimensions, his first band. But that was more than 25 years earlier, and now Kimbel had an acoustic guitar, not electric guitars, amplifiers and drums.
“I didn’t know any songs,” said Kimbel. “I made up the pieces as I went along. I was simply waiting for the airline to call me and give me my job back. I had no intentions, it wasn’t even on my radar, to go out and make playing guitar my livelihood.”
But Andy’s Americana finger-picking and flat-picking (using a pick) style evoked positive responses from crowds. Before, he “was the guy at the party with a guitar.” Now, he was backing up friends at open mics around Philly, and soon getting asked to play his own gigs.
In 1992, the same year he started playing open mics, the owner of the Samuel Adams Brew House offered Kimbel a paying gig. One paying gig led to another. A year later, Kimbel discovered his love of using metal finger picks expanded from classic rock like Buffalo Springfield, the Who and Bob Dylan to bluegrass musicians like Doc Watson after Andy attended the Nashville Full Moon Bluegrass Jam.
After the festival, an organizer invited scores of musicians to a large farm where all-night jamming ensued. Kimbel was hooked on that style of music. When he returned to Philly, he bought his own metal finger picks from Eight Street Music. “I still have that recording from the first time I tried to use the metal picks,” he said. “It’s full of expletives from me missing notes.”
It took about a year to become confident with the metal picks. By 1993, Kimbel was hired as the weekend night house musician at New York City’s The Improv, a comedy club in Midtown Manhattan that sometimes hosted HBO showcases. It’s fitting that one of Kimbel’s early paying gigs was in an improvisational club since his own music career started with Kimbel passing around yellow legal pads to audience members. He would ask them to write down one-line lyrical phrases, and he would use the audience’s words to form lyrics to original songs.
In 1993, Kimbel was forced “with the most difficult decision” of his life, when Executive Jet, now Netjets, a corporate airline, offered him back his job as a pilot. “Was I going to give up music and go back to playing the guitar for fun?” he asked himself. One night, during the process of making the decision, he played a packed house when he looked at all the people in the crowd “there to see me… I knew I could make a difference on the stage.”
And that’s where he’s been ever since. He started getting more press, newspaper write-ups and jobs, toured and was featured on radio gigs like WXPN’s Folk Show with Gene Shay. In 1994, he was offered a record deal with First Choice Records, and recorded his first album, “Time Moves On.” In 1995, he was featured on the front-page of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Weekend” Edition.
In 1999, he started an opec mic at The Point in Bryn Mawr. At first, four or five people came out. Soon, there were 60 people every Tuesday night “waiting to play one song in that atmosphere.” An unknown Amos Lee, who has since opened for Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, used to frequent The Point.
“It used to be Andy and Amos,” said Kimbel about the days when The Point’s open mic drew only a few people. In 1999, Kimbel also put a band together, the Andy Kimbel Express, when the owners of KatManDu (Philadelphia and Trenton locations) wanted a band to play while their patrons ate dinner. The Express played 20 Saturday nights at KatManDu and toured. Kimbel plans to book more dates with the Express in the future.
For now, Kimbel hopes he can bring some of his open mic success to the O’Towne Tavern, located on Plymouth Road in Oreland, where he hosts an open mic every Tuesday night. Musicians sign-up for the event online beforehand, and Kimbel arranges the night so there is a variety of musical styles.
In May, he’ll host “Oreland Idol,” a mock American Idol competition. The winner will receive three hours of professional studio recording time, among other things. On May 24, he’ll host an all-Bob Dylan open mic in honor of Dylan’s 70th birthday.
These days, Kimbel focuses more on selling his music on the internet. He is planning a tour of radio stations and house concerts. His song, “Red Hot Blues,” has been downloaded almost a half-million times. “You can play a show in Lima, Ohio, and 50 or 60 people show up and pay $15 and buy CDs,” he said about house concerts. (He played one in Mt. Airy last fall.) “You can make $600 or $700.”
As for open mics, he’s been involved in two that Philadelphia Magazine awarded “Best of Philly” — at the Samuel Adams Brew House in 1996 and at The Point in 1999. “Because I owe my career to that, I host them,” said Kimbel. “How else can someone who wants to play get out and play?”