Great White/Mark Kendall Interview: Hard Rock Live, Biloxi, MS, 8/27/11

Sometimes you just have to feel the music. Don’t think about it, don’t whine or worry about what will be played, and certainly don’t go to your seat with any preconceived notions that the man singing in place of the band’s longtime vocalist will not be up to par with the original. You just have to stop and feel the music.

Fans of the band Great White are loyal and they have stayed with them through good songs and bad songs, tragedy and heartaches, highs and lows. And the band knows this more than anyone. “I really, really, really, really appreciate all the support from the fans over the years,” guitarist Mark Kendall stresses to me a few days before their show in Biloxi. “Our fans are the most unreal friends and fans ever and I’m just like overwhelmed by joy to actually meet people that have been watching us for twenty plus years. You never get to meet them because you can’t go out and meet twenty-thousand people so it’s so neat now that we have the Facebook and everything and to be in touch with fans who have the stories and we really enjoy the stories, you know.”

And meet with the fans they do. Not only did they take time out before their concert to meet some extra-special fans, but they hung out after the show to sign autographs and meet anyone and everyone who wanted to stop by their table. One young fan in particular caught my attention. His name was David and he is eleven years old. He was waiting along with his parents to meet his guitar hero Mark Kendall and see if he would sign the beautiful black guitar that he had brought with him. With eyes wide with excitement, not only did Kendall take the time to sign this precious instrument, as did all his band-mates, but he took the time to show that he cared about his young fan, who said he knew how to play all the Great White songs. That, folks, is why this band keeps their fans, thirty plus years down the pipe, when the hair is less and the spandex has long been hanging on some Goodwill hanger.

For anyone familiar with the Great White saga, you will have known beforehand that singer Jack Russell is not currently out on tour with them. He has physical issues that have to be repaired and strengthened before he can endure life on the road once again. Thinking that this might keep some fans from attending shows, it was good to see that in fact, it did not. Great White is more than Jack Russell alone. Although it is his bluesy emotion-driven vocals that have always put the primal soul into the songs, it is also the excellent blues guitar of Mark Kendall, the powerhouse drums of Audie Desbrow, the melody of guitar, keyboards and harmonica that Michael Lardie adds, and the superpump of bassist Scott Snyder. Never underestimate this band as a whole.

So who is stepping into the spotlight to reinterpret the songs? Enter the spitfire of a vocalist Terry Ilous. He has the vocal range that can split eardrums yet can soften to whisper out a song like “Save Your Love”. He has a kid-in-a-candy-store excitedness on stage that immediately pulls you to the front to sing along with him. “He has a style that is kind of more of a blues kind of voice but a lot of power and can hit every note under the sun,” Kendall explained to me about Ilous, who has fronted the band XYZ for years. “He is really dynamic and has such a good energy about himself. He is such a positive guy that our stage shows have just been phenomenal. We’ve been so well received from everyone and they’ve really accepted him filling in for Jack. Man, he is something else … Just a blessing.”

Keeping tradition alive, Great White kicked off their set with “Desert Moon”, followed by “Lady Red Light”, “On Your Knees” and “Face The Day”. “Save Your Love” was dedicated to former Warrant singer Jani Lane, who passed away a few weeks ago and actually did some dates fronting Great White last year. It brought a somewhat melancholy to this beautiful song, but as Ilous said sadly, “the show must go on”.

Kendall was definitely on fire, pulling out such electric solos on “Big Goodbye”, “On Your Knees” and “Rock Me”. But he outdid himself on “Can’t Shake It”, breathing holy batman blues licks on a slinky grungy fat cat solo backed by the humping rhythm of Desbrow on drums and Snyder on bass. It was a definite highlight of the night seeing this man just excel on his instrument. Why he is not mentioned more often when talking about great guitar players is baffling. He also turned on the kinetic juice to playfully spar with Ilous on “Mista Bone”. “Mr. Kendall, you trying to say something?” asked the singer to his guitarist, who replied with some fun kicking chords.

If you watched carefully, you noticed that smiles were on every musician’s face. They were having fun, enjoying this moment in time. “We always try to keep it exciting for ourselves as well so we like to give the audience a lot of surprises,” said Kendall. “We like to involve the crowd into our show so we have a lot of like crowd participation and stuff like that … So it’s usually a pretty high energy show”.

Although “House Of Broken Love” was most definitely a Jack Russell song to sing and Ilous did his best to add a bit of his own technique to it, you couldn’t help but miss the former man’s presence. I asked Kendall how Russell was doing and when he might be able to rejoin the band: “Jack, you know, just had a lot of physical things. He’s recovering from surgeries and he just has a lot of damage to overcome but he is doing a lot better. He’s been working out with his trainer and getting a lot stronger. He just doesn’t want to come back like half way. He wants to be strong and mobile and singing his best. So we’re holding out hope that he comes back soon. Probably next year we’re hoping.”

One song that Ilous did shine brighter on than the original was “All Or Nothing” from the band’s last studio album Rising. With Desbrow pounding out a heavy beat, Ilous just owned it. He also took it home on “Can’t Shake It” and “Back To The Rhythm”, both rocking numbers that made the body feel good.

I also want to make mention of Michael Lardie. Playing guitar, keyboards and harmonica, and being the band’s de facto filmer of the crowd from the stage, he brought a subtle cohesiveness to every song, especially the pretty melody on “Save Your Love” that weaved through the song like a breath of fresh spring air and kept it from becoming an over-the-top over-the-hill power ballad.

It really isn’t that odd that Great White has stuck around for over thirty years. Although they were cutting their teeth on the LA Strip when poufy hair and lipstick were the normal everyday du jour, you could usually find these guys in jeans and paying very close attention to the original Van Halen. “They were the best band around so we kind of watched what they were doing, which they were just playing more than everyone. They played like every night. So that’s what we tried to do. We just tried to play more than everybody and promote ourselves. We figured nobody was at the high school at three in the morning putting flyers in lockers so we did that,” Kendall remembered with a laugh. “Our whole thing was that we figured even if we’re not good enough to make it or whatever, maybe people will be brainwashed into thinking they’re supposed to like us (laughs) because they see our name around so much.”

Their longevity probably has more to do with being a straight shooting rock & roll band; something that many bands on the Strip ignored while riding the glam rock jet stream into an eventual dead end. “We were mostly just playing from our influences, you know, more blues overtones and whatever, and the music was always kind of the most important thing for us. The fashion was what it was. We did have long hair but so did the guy walking to the 7-Eleven, you know what I mean.” Kendall, who is now sporting that sleek noggin look now considered sexy, I asked him if he missed his hair: “Well, no not really”, he said with a big laugh. “It was really a pain in the butt, if you want to know the truth. In about early 2000, I remember, I started cutting it shorter and I was just like, not only does it look way better, it’s so much cooler in the summer. Then before you knew it I went way down all the way. I just shaved it one summer and I went, Oh man, this is just totally it … It is the best thing I ever did, I can tell you. It was such a pain and with the baseball hats and all the hair and sweating, I was like, ugh.”

So with such a kick ass show in Biloxi, fans of Great White should be proud of their band for still rocking and not completely falling back on past glories. The songs were still fresh and vibrant and Ilous brought enough of his own personality to keep the live show energetically entertaining.

Below, I would like to share with you some excerpts from my interview with Mark Kendall. He was very open about his life in music and had some interesting things to say about the early days of Great White, Jani Lane, his love for the guitar, and how after thirty plus years, the band has yet to strangle each other on the road.

How would you compare the Great White of 2011 with the Great White of the early nineties when you were riding that wave of popularity? How do you think the music has changed?

Well, as far as changing, I just think the way our thinking is is we’re always trying to get better and learn from past mistakes as far as our songwriting and stuff. We’re just always trying to improve and to continue writing music. We try not to live off the past. I mean, we’ve had big songs and stuff like that but we don’t make that our focal point. Of course we play all those songs in the show but we’re also trying to improve. I think we probably play a little better than we did way back then because for one thing, everybody’s really clear in their heads and nobody drinks to where back in the early days, like in the late eighties or whatever, there was some partying and you don’t always play your very best live when you’re kind of in party mode (laughs). So I think we’re a little bit more focused these days and I think our consistency as far as how well we play is probably a little better than the past. But the past had it’s good moments too (laughs).

So tell us about the past, being on the LA Strip and trying to make it with all those other hundreds of bands trying to make it too.

You know, it’s funny. We really promoted. I would be like going down the Sunset Strip with my staple gun and my posters and putting up our poster of us playing somewhere and look across the street and there’s Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue doing the same thing (laughs). That was the thing we did, we just all kept our dreams alive and when Van Halen did get a record deal, I was happy. Some bands might have got jealous or whatever but I was just like, are you serious? It CAN happen and you CAN get a record deal and you CAN go on tour. So we just kept plugging away and we figured if we played more than everyone, cause we know you have to be very lucky to make it or get a record deal or whatever, we figured if we put ourselves in maybe a better position to get lucky than a band that just plays on Saturday night, if we’re playing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, then our chances are a lot better at getting lucky or having someone in the crowd that means something, like a record company guy or whatever. And that’s what happened. We were just playing at the Whiskey one night, like a Wednesday night, no big deal, and some guy that was just in the crowd that worked for a label came back and handed us his card and before you know it we’re in the studio making a record.

When did you fall in love with the guitar?

Actually at a really young age. It wasn’t just only the guitar. There was always music around. My dad was a trumpet player and my mom sang and we always had music going in the house and all that. And my Grandpa was also kind of an accomplished piano player and played like the vaudeville kind of show tunes and all that. So music was just kind of bred into me and I just kind of picked up on melodies really easy when I was probably like seven or eight years old, just sitting by the hi-fi, just singing to songs and whatnot. And then there was this group that played across the street in a garage and I used to watch them through the side window. The bass player I remember playing with his teeth (laughs) and I just went crazy and went running to my dad, “I got to get a guitar, I need a guitar”. And so he got me a guitar … but the guitar didn’t really consume me until I was a teenager and then I just never put it down.

Jani Lane passed away recently. Would you mind saying a few words about him?

You know, my wife and I were close to his wife and him. We had something in common with alcoholism. I battled alcohol before. I wouldn’t want to call myself his sponsor but I was more like a sober friend and I tried to encourage him. He was actually out singing with us for a little bit, completely professional, he wasn’t drinking or anything, he looked amazing, he sang wonderful. The fans hadn’t seen him look so good and sing so good in twenty years and he was just so great. I remember sitting in an airport one time and he was sitting with his wife and I go, “Jani, man, you look so amazing right now.” I go, “What’s wrong with this? I mean, you’ve got to feel great. The fans say you haven’t sang this great in so long and you’re just looking so good”. And he goes, “I know it, I love it.” So I really encouraged him and I sent him daily prayers, every single day I sent him a prayer … What people don’t realize is Jani, for one thing, he’s got a lot of talent. I mean, he is the most talented guy. He played drums on his own records, that’s how good he is. People don’t even know that. He wrote every Warrant song you’ve ever heard. But with his alcoholism, his demons … He wanted to be sober more than anything. He really, really loved his sobriety. It’s just the demons he battled and I know what it’s like. I understand it because I’m an alcoholic myself. I’ve just managed to overcome it a day at a time. I found something that works for me … Jani just kept firing the bullet and it was just the fatal one that finally happened. But he didn’t want it to happen, believe me. So it’s really a horrid tragedy and when something like that happens, it just hurts so many people and it’s unfortunate. But I want everyone to know that he really wanted to be a sober man.

I haven’t yet heard what exactly he died of but I guess when you’re young you just don’t realize that you are destroying your body until years down the road when it starts to give out on you.

Yeah, your body is just hating it. That’s why you at some point have to grow up and you just got to say, well, if I have a problem I’ve got to fix it somehow and just figure it out because usually you’re injuring a lot of people around you when you’re abusive. It’s best if you find something that can fill that void. Some people get it and some people don’t and it’s unfortunate. Some don’t have a bottom … Everything that surrounds that is just an ugly dark world. Such a horrible place and I think one of the reasons that I’m sober today is because I like the place I’m at now and I don’t want to go back to that ugly place anymore.

Since you guys have been together so long, how have you not just wrung each other’s necks out on the road?

I don’t even know if I have an answer (laughs). Mainly, it’s we’ve always kept the music the most important thing so we never really sweated the small things or made too big of a deal out of arguments or anything. There were more arguments and problems when we had alcohol involved in the band. Nothing ever like fist fight level or anything. I actually did take a break in 2000. They wanted to go to Europe and I was just like, we literally had not stopped for I don’t know how many years and I needed a break so bad (laughs). I needed to get away from it for like six months or something and they didn’t want to do that, so they got another guitar player to fill in and went over and they played one show and everybody quit or something. It was crazy. So obviously I guess I saw we needed a break before anyone else did (laughs). I think our personalities are so different that they just kind of meld together like a puzzle. Some people are a little more reserved than others, some of them have a little bit more forward personality so the softer personalities lean back a little more. It’s not like we’re all so strong headed that everybody has their opinion and they won’t take no for an answer … Another reason we make things work is we never put too much emphasis on the behind the scenes as far as the personalities clashing. We make the most important thing the time on the stage. Whatever it takes to make the best music we can make, let’s do that and not worry and sweat the small stuff.

Watch for more with Mark Kendall in my upcoming new column MY ROOTS.

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