Steve Connelly gets a little help from his friends

More than a dozen acts perform at Skipper's Smokehouse in support of the local scene linchpin

click to enlarge Steve Connelly live at Skipper's in July 2014. - Tracy May
Tracy May
Steve Connelly live at Skipper's in July 2014.

Sometimes, when you do good by the local music scene, the local music scene will do good by you, too. Case in point: Steve Connelly.

After the ceiling of his Zen Recording studio caved in amid ongoing medical issues, the outpouring of love and support was immediate, as was the creation of a benefit show and installation of a fundraising campaign on, which has already reached over $12k of its intended $20k goal. “We all adore him, he’s been a longtime treasure around here and he’s so humble,” said local artist/poet Lori Karpay, who met Connelly through ex-husband Harry Hayward and recorded some spoken word CDs with Connelly backing her up.

Connelly’s calm yet relentless axe-slinging presence has brought added value to folk-rooted Bay area rock acts for more than three decades, beginning with his well-regarded and currently disbanded Headlights, which earned some high buzz in the early ‘90s when they were tapped to record and tour with Byrds primary Roger McGuinn. The Headlights never made it big, but Connelly was content to remain under the radar and planted ever deeper roots here after the Headlights dissolved, taking up guitar duties with groups like Ronny Elliott and the Nationals and The Ditchflowers, leading solo projects à la his current Lesser Gods, and producing scores of other area artists at Zen over the past 20 years.

He’s been at his current location in Pinellas Park since 1999, and beyond fair prices and impeccable production qualities, Connelly has earned a rep for his fine ear, light touch, musical acumen, and encyclopedic knowledge of sound. His client roster at Zen has thus encompassed a wide swath of significant Bay area talent, among them Rebekah Pulley, Rich Whitely, Have Gun, Will Travel, GreyMarket and Offshore Riot.

A few years ago, Connelly discovered he had Hepatitis-C that had gone undiagnosed for much of his adult life. Recently, he was told the damage to his liver was severe enough that he needed a transplant.

It was amid an endless cycle of doctor’s appointments and insurance claims that the ceiling in Zen’s live room — built in the early ‘80s and soundproofed with stacked squares of drywall and sheetrock that had finally gotten too damp and heavy to hold up any longer — came crashing down. He was finishing up some work there when he heard the first ominous crunch. “I looked over, and the whole middle of the ceiling had dropped about eight inches.” Connelly scrambled in, removing expensive guitars and gear and pushing everything else back against the walls and into the corners. “I was kind of crazy to do that in retrospect, ‘cause it would have killed me if I had been in there when
it went.”

The two isolation booths and control panel were untouched, but the room where he recorded all the drum and bass parts was out of commission, and it’s taken a few months to clear out the debris and make it usable again. He only got back into Zen a few weeks ago, doing simple overdubs and finishing up sessions and projects he’d been working on before the cave-in. He remains positive in the wake of the mess. “I can actually function as well as I did before.”

The ceiling has been left as is. “It looks like a science fiction monster with these tentacles of ductwork hanging down,” Connelly laughed. “The drums sound incredible in there now, way bigger than they used to. The ceiling isn’t absorbing what’s coming off the kit — it’s not stopping the transient attack of the note, so it’s like rocket ships going off.”

With neighbors on either side, he can’t continue without soundproofing, and a prospective transplant in his future means he’ll be out of commission for another three months. “The call is, if I’m going to stay here or not. Keeping up with the overhead on the place, while I’m recovering, without being able to work, will be tough.”

But immersing himself in work keeps him from brooding on his problems, and his reluctance to throw in the towel and produce artists in someone else’s studio is understandable. “It’s really hard to give up, it’s hard to say, ‘I can’t handle this anymore, it’s just an albatross.’ I mean, it’s such a part of me.”

Saturday’s benefit show was conceived by Karpay, who was supposed to lay down tracks for her fourth album when Connelly had to cancel because of the damage. Aware of his ongoing medical issues, Karpay reached out to Dirty Spoons & Trash Revue songstress Natty Moss Bond, with whom she'd previously organized a benefit for Hayward. Moss Bond was game to put together another one for Connelly, and the planning commenced immediately. They reserved a date at Skipper’s Smokehouse, set up the GoFundMe campaign, and created an event page that spiraled into a fit of sharing on Facebook and fueled GoFundMe donations. “I couldn’t believe how fast the numbers started increasing,” Karpay said.

Connelly headlines the show with his Lesser Gods (Brad Trumbell, Ed Woltil, Scott Dempster and Danny DiPietera), and a cross-generational, genre-ranging lineup of performers all associated with Connelly in some way take the stage throughout the day leading up to his set. Karpay said so many artists clamored to play the benefit, “We had to turn some away.”

All proceeds from the door go to Connelly, as do funds raised from raffle items and a silent auction that includes an impressive collection of instruments.

Connelly admits it’s humbling that so many people have come together to help him out, and that the GoFundMe outpouring hit right when he was at his lowest moment. “I knew I’d built up some good karma over the years, but that was really surprising. It touched me; it overwhelmed me.” 

For the Benefit of Mr. C — A Benefit for Steve Connelly, 
with Steve Connelly & the Lesser Gods, Ronny Elliott & the Nationals, Bogus Pomp, Grey Market, Mercy McCoy, Rebekah Pulley & the Reluctant Prophets, Ricky Wilcox & the Moonsnakes, Rich Whitely & Co., Offshore Riot, Sara Rose Band, Peace of Woodstock, Dirty Spoons & Trash Revue, Sat., June 27, 4 p.m.-midnight, Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa, $10 suggested donation. To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, CLICK HERE.

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