After spending a year mourning the loss of lead vocalist Kenny Shields who passed away July 21st 2017 due to a long-term heart ailment, Streetheart guitarist Jeff Neill re-grouped with fellow members, keyboardist Daryl Gutheil and bassist Ken (Spider) Sinnaeve and they determined that while the loss of Shields ended an important stage of the band’s legacy, there was still some unfinished business within the group.
“We all felt that the band’s story wasn’t over yet, obviously an important chapter had ended with the death of Kenny but it was unfair to the rest of the band to say you simply have to stop now,” explained Neill over the phone from his Vancouver residence. “But of course our biggest challenge going forward was how do we present a new lead vocalist to our fans who is in their own way, as identifiable as Kenny – after all, Kenny was the voice of the band for over 40 years.”
It’s a challenge other bands like Queen, AC/DC and INXS have faced with the loss of their key frontmen, and in Streetheart’s case the solution came in the form of another Winnipeg band, Harlequin who had a bassist, Paul McNair who grew up a Streetheart fan and was someone who literally knew their entire song catalogue off by heart.
Streetheart had been scheduled to perform at Winnipeg’s Shaw Park as part of their farewell tour but when Shields suffered his July 1st mishap, the date was changed to be a fund-raiser and then became a tribute concert when he passed away on July 21st at the St Boniface Hospital.
“The idea was to get some of Kenny’s musical friends together to sing our songs with the surviving members on stage and the response was tremendous,” Neill noted. “We got George Belanger from Harlequin, the guys from Honeymoon Suite, Kenny’s dear friend Donny Parenteau and when Loverboy’s guitarist Paul Dean and drummer Matt Frenette (original Streetheart members) insisted on paying their own way to Winnipeg, lead vocalist Mike Reno also asked to be a part of the show as well. However, we needed a core band on stage and that’s when Paul stepped up and suggested that we use him.”
McNair proved to be just the right replacement for Shields. “Paul sang the songs with both respect and authority, he didn’t come in with an I-Pad and a lyric sheet, he knew all of our songs by heart,” enthused Neill. “The litmus test was when, towards the end of the night, he sang ‘Action’ fronting the original band of Dean, Frenette, Gutheil and Spider. When he hit the high notes, a collective chill ran down our spines. He was playing before 8,000 hard-core Winnipeg Kenny Shields fans and he won them over. It was like they were saying; `Yes we will always miss Kenny but boy is this guy good’.”
Once a decision was made to move forward with a re-formed Streetheart, which now also included Kim Mitchell-Nelly Furtado drummer, David Langguth, the next challenge was to release a new record.
“I met with Warren Stewart at Universal Records in Toronto who was in charge of a new division called Musicvaultz which is focused on all their classic acts and artists like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bryan Adams,” Neill explained. “We discussed re-releasing tracks from the Streetheart catalogue and I mentioned the Life. Legacy. Music idea that we were using going forward. Warren loved the concept and it became the name of the new record”
As a result, the band along with Universal selected 12 tracks which they felt best represented their song list (released Friday, April 19th) and included one new track, a cover of Spirit’s ‘Nature’s Way’ which proved to be Shield’s last recording with the band.
“The song contains the line ‘It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong’ which when we recorded it, we felt it was about the state of nature in general with regards to pollution and global warming but in the end, it became quite a poignant and prophetic statement about Kenny’s own health,” explained Neill.
Shields’ declining health had forced the band to cancel all their summer 2014 dates and the band’s future booking commitments were always in doubt which proved to be a major disruption to any touring and recording plans.
“So we made the decision to do a final tour in 2017 to give Kenny a chance to say goodbye to his fans. He was concerned about letting his fans down and we said, `hey, don’t worry, your fans love you, just go out and have fun,’ ” Neill reflected. “So we started the tour, some of the earlier dates went well, but Kenny wasn’t letting on how serious his illness was, he was trying to be a real trooper and it wasn’t until after he passed that it came to light how dangerous it had been on his heart for him to fly.”
Things came to a head Sunday, July 1st, Canada Day during a performance at Edmonton suburb Sherwood Park. “The left side of Kenny’s heart was working at about a 20% efficiency rate and that lack of blood to his brain causes a condition called hypoxia, a side effect being that you slur your words and you become generally disoriented,” Neill revealed. “Even the mayor of Sherwood Park was concerned, we knew he was in serious distress. We flew him to Winnipeg right after the show and the doctors at St. Boniface Hospital performed emergency surgery on him immediately but his system was in a very bad way. The medical staff did everything they could to keep Kenny alive and comfortable but sadly, he passed on July 21st.”
After the band allowed a sufficient and respectful mourning period, almost 18 months, they are now back on the road with the new lineup and so far the results have been encouraging. “We played to over 1,400 people in Winnipeg, played two nights in Regina and performed for 2,500 people in Edmonton,” enthused Neill. “We open with “Action” and as soon as Paul hits those high notes you can see the fans go “yes, you can do this”. You can see hope and enthusiasm for the future in their faces, it’s like they are saying `this is going to be good again’, the shows so far have been fierce!”
Aside from ‘Nature’s Way’, `Life Legacy, Music’ features remastered versions of ‘Action’ from their 1978 debut release,`Meanwhile Back In Paris’, a live version of ‘Hollywood’, classic covers such as their Rolling Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’ masterpiece, Them’s ‘Here Comes The Night’ and the Small Faces’ ‘Tin Soldier’ as well as their own hits off their 1982 self titled album which includes ‘What Kind Of Love Is This’, ‘Look In Your Eyes’ and ‘Snow White’. Also coming in July is a two record, red vinyl set with three tracks per side.
Neill hinted at future catalogue releases and says the band is inspired to head into the studio to record new material with the current lineup.
Anyone wishing to check out the new-look Streetheart might consider heading north of Toronto to Edenvale Airport (Clearview Township) where the band will participate in the Roxodus Music Festival set to run July 11-14. Streetheart perform Saturday, July 13 on a bill which also features Kid Rock, Alice Cooper and Peter Frampton, not bad company for a band on the rebound!
For more information on Streetheart go to www.streetheart.ca