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"A Bright Light" 

As an agent, booker and an owner of the Circle Bar, Kelly Keller did as much as anyone to bring rock 'n' roll to New Orleans. Her friends remember her for so much more.

Standing outside St. Anthony Catholic Church in Eunice, Kelly Keller's friends are easily spotted as not from around those parts. Some, like Rik Slave, singer for Rock City Morgue, wear sharp, vintage clothes, though in his case, a skeleton hand, tattooed over his own hand, emerges from one sleeve. Others wear suits that don't fit as well -- either thrift store finds or suits purchased by parents years ago. Some have dress shoes with thick soles, more Gargoyle's than Dillard's. Others just sport Converse high-tops.

The friends gather under an old shade tree near the door of the church. A little farther away are the friends of Keller's family. Mostly an older crowd from Eunice, they're in the suits and dresses they might normally wear to church on Sunday.

The priest, Harry Bienfiel, also is an old family friend. Speaking at the service, he has a hard time holding back his tears when he recalls Kelly's broad smile. As Bienfiel speaks, Kelly's friends, many from self-consciously cool New Orleans bands and well-practiced in the arts of sarcasm and ennui, openly sob. David Harbold, bass player for Dr. A Go-Go and singer for Clockwork Elvis, even removes the hat he wears in public pretty much every day. "Nobody recognized me," he says later.

During the service, Bienfiel asks those who had traveled to Eunice for Keller's funeral to stand. The 40 or 50 out-of-towners, most more accustomed to barstools than church pews, rise. The rest of the congregation applauds.

Keller, the manager and co-owner of the Circle Bar in New Orleans, died the night of Friday, Sept. 24. She first made her mark in music managing Dash Rip Rock in the band's early years. After that, she did stints hosting a country music show at WTUL and working for Black Top Records. She's best known, though, as a talent booker. Whether at the Circle Bar or New York City's Coney Island High, she gave opportunities to new bands and legendary musicians almost regardless of genre, creating events that bridged age, race and cultural differences. In New Orleans, Keller made the Circle Bar a mandatory drop-in spot because it was possible anyone could be there. She did as much as anyone to improve the status of rock 'n' roll in New Orleans, and her friends remember her as one of the most supportive, enthusiastic people they ever met.

For SEAN YSEULT, OF ROCK CITY MORGUE, it was hard to see Keller's hometown. She had talked about the place frequently, Yseult says. "Once I was there, I was nostalgic from hearing her talk about it and seeing what she appreciated."

Keller grew up the youngest of four children -- Kelly, Ginger, Gayle and Emile, all two years' apart. Her father, Reginald, sells life insurance, but before he married her mother, Gerry, he briefly booked Cajun music shows. It wasn't that he was so much a fan of French music or even spoke French, he says, but "I thought it would be good to perpetuate the tradition because my parents told me about how when I was a kid, how every Saturday night they'd have a dance hall over there and play French music." More than that, he says, he was trying to make a little money.

In 1979 or 1980 -- while Kelly was a teenager -- he bought an old theater and booked bands. "We tried to get some entertainment for kids -- I'm talking young teenagers -- and we got one band and we made $400, my partner and I," he says "We had a suggestion box and had the kids suggest who they wanted next time. A bunch of them stuffed the box and we got some other band two weeks later and lost $400. Then my partner says, 'I don't want that. That's too much work to just break even.'"

As a young teenager, Keller would tell her friends, she and her sisters slipped out of their house to go see rock shows in Lafayette. In the early '80s, she attended Louisiana State University, where she met Dash Rip Rock's Bill Davis. He remembers she was into Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell, and they shared a similar attitude toward their parents' music.

"She had disdain for Cajun music, but that's just a typical kid. It was the same with me; I didn't like the country music my dad forced me to listen to, but I came back to it, the same way Kelly came back to Cajun."

Keller and Davis fell in love at LSU. At the time, Davis had a band called the Human Rays. "She hated that band," he remembers. "It was like Devo and she thought it was too silly, so that's when we formed Dash." When Fred LeBlanc joined the band, Davis started trying to book Dash Rip Rock out of town, and soon Keller was helping. "She booked some amazing shows," he says. "She had the guts to call the Club Lingerie in Los Angeles and say, 'Hey, can Dash open for Screamin' Jay Hawkins?' and they said, 'Sure.'

"She had that courage to do stuff like that. When MTV came to town to do The Cutting Edge, she got us on that. She said, 'You've got to put this band on there. They're one of the up-and-coming bands in New Orleans.' The next thing we know, Peter Zaremba's interviewing us and we're doing a show at Tipitina's."

Keller's role evolved from helper to manager. "She used to try to sing along with me and she used to dabble with music and think she wanted to be a musician, but her thing was ideas. She had great ideas. Art or planning or whatever, she had some brilliant ideas and some unique, revolutionary ideas. It wasn't like she was echoing what Jefferson Holt was doing with R.E.M. or what Jimmy Ford was doing with the dB's; she had a lot of her own personal ideas about how to make a band a success, and that's what pushed Dash to the fore.

"She bought clothes for us. She'd say, 'Don't wear that, wear this.' It took Hoaky (Hickel, Dash Rip Rock's bassist at the time) a good year to convince her he should wear the black cowboy hat." Davis laughs. "She thought it was so uncool. She could sniff out cool stuff before it came to be."

While Davis and Keller lived together, she even had input on songs. Nearly half the songs on the first album were about her, Davis says. "We'd sit around the house with a guitar and she'd help me arrange songs. She'd make me get out my four-track and rearrange songs. I was pretty upset with some of her critique, but she had some pretty good ideas."

Dash eventually moved its management to Austin, Texas, and Davis and Keller's relationship fell apart after the band's second album. After Keller's death, Davis posted this message on Dash's Web site: "She was greatly responsible for the early direction of the band and inspired us to cover certain songs, write certain songs and be as honest as possible in our music. She was our most sincere advocate through the years and without Kelly we'd just have been another half-assed bar band from Baton Rouge. She maintains a dear place in our hearts and is considered a founder of Dash Rip Rock."

KELLER SPENT THE '90s BOUNCING AROUND. "She went to New Orleans, then she went to the West Coast," recalls Reginald Keller. "She came back to New Orleans, then she went to Boston. She came back to New Orleans, then she went to New York. Then she came back to New Orleans when they opened that bar (the Circle Bar). That's what she wanted to do -- book bands, get a good variety of music and promote music. That's what she wanted to do and that's what she did."

Lilli Dennison met Keller in Boston. Dennison was managing a number of Boston garage and roots bands, including the Flys while Keller was managing Dash Rip Rock. "The two bands fell in love," Dennison says. "This is I think around '85, and they wanted to do some touring together." In Boston, Keller lived with Dennison for three or four years.

Dennison laughs when she remembers first meeting Keller. "I thought she was rather pushy. Later that night, we went out and I saw the real Kelly and we became the closest of friends and have continued to be that for almost 20 years now." Bill Davis remembers Keller similarly. "She was a very fiery personality," he says. "She used to be as tough as nails. I never saw her have any self-confidence issues."

In Boston, Keller bartended, worked at record stores and managed New Orleans singer Glyn Styler. In New York City soon after, she booked garage bands, punk and old soul artists at Coney Island High, a club in lower Manhattan. That same aesthetic guided her in 1999, when she returned to New Orleans to open the Circle Bar. She called musician Dave Clements, who owned Snake and Jake's, to see if he wanted to get on board.

"She started it," Clements says. "She wanted to open a bar."

FOR YEARS, THE SOUTHEASTERN SIDE of Lee Circle had been a restaurant called the Fleur De Lis. Keller opened the Circle Bar with five partners and renovated and redecorated the small room into a club.

"The Circle Bar 100 percent reflected her," Sean Yseult says. "So stylish, the way she would paint it and find things in thrift stores to hang on the walls, great furniture, the jukebox was so eclectic. That was all Kelly."

Yseult, one of the owners of The Saint, is sitting on the patio at the Columns. She drinks a glass of Prosecco in tribute to Keller, who introduced her to the sparkling white wine. A black cat sits in the chair next to her, and she reaches over to play with it.

"We'd do something almost every day," she says. "At one point, we did our daily bike ride either downtown or up to Audubon Park, we'd go thrifting on Jeff Highway, we'd go shopping at UAL together, we liked the same clothes. We'd go to Lilette pretty often for lunch or dinner or Sake Cafe and order everything on the menu. We had a lot of similar tastes.

"It's funny. We had so much in common but I was always baffled by her jukebox and she was baffled by mine. The only thing that crossed our jukeboxes was the Sonics. Everything else -- the obscure swamp and blues, I'm clueless about. I spent my life around bands like Kyuss and Supersuckers, so that's what our jukebox reflects. She's got all this cool stuff on there that's so obscure to me. She definitely turned a lot of people on to cool music."

The jukebox, along with the K&B clock hanging from the ceiling, became a signature of the Circle Bar. Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos says the jukebox influenced him to start the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, a group dedicated to bringing back the legends of blues, R&B, rockabilly and swamp pop.

"The Circle Bar, in large part through Kelly's jukebox, is where I decided to start, basically," he says. "Where else could I see Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters next to Captain Beefheart and 13th Floor Elevators? To me that was a natural progression, and that's why it worked." The first Mau-Mau show took place at the Circle Bar in January 2001, presenting Texas guitarist Classie Ballou.

In a rare breach of secrecy, Padnos acknowledges that Keller was one of the Knights. "She gave us a place to take a chance and create," he says. When the shows outgrew the bar, she helped Padnos find a new musical home -- Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, the site of the now-annual Ponderosa Stomp between the weekends of Jazz Fest.

"She helped us try to figure out business things from a bar owner's perspective. She was very helpful assisting the inner workings like getting posters up, musicians moved, getting stuff done. Kelly would always lend a hand or orchestrate things."

Keller did many of the airport runs, picking up aging artists, some of whom travel better than others. "She picked up Nick Holt and Earl (Howell) and she had to go leave to pick someone else up at the airport," Padnos remembers. Then she had to keep the musicians from getting lost or wandering off. "She locked them in the Circle Bar so they started having cocktails. Once she picked up Nathaniel Mayer in her station wagon and he asks, 'Where's my limousine?'" Despite that grouchy start, Keller and the Detroit soul legend, then in his 70s, became friends; she once took him to visit musician Lazy Lester and is thanked in the liner notes for Mayer's new album, I Just Want to Be Held.

Padnos says that Keller also had input in the Mau-Mau lineup. "Kelly definitely had her favorites," he says. "She loved Barbara Lynn. She loved Ray Sharpe. She totally dug the fact that we did the Back Roads."

She also encouraged Padnos to find soul legend Howard Tate, whose first gig in 30 years was at the Circle Bar on Aug. 18, 2001. More than 100 people showed up to see Tate with a 14-piece band led by Lil' Buck Sinegal. That show reintroduced Tate to the world -- a reissue of his 1972 self-titled album was released a month later and a picture from the Circle Bar show ran in The New York Times promoting a New York date.

"Howard could still hit the high notes," Padnos says.

KKELLER'S FRIENDS ARE UNDERSTANDABLY protective when they talk about her death, but everybody has a story about how supportive she was. Bartender Stephanie Thomas, who dances and sings as part of Dr. A Go-Go, credits her with giving her confidence and helping her overcome shyness. Lefty Parker, who currently manages the Circle Bar, considers Keller his mentor.

"Kelly taught me how to bartend," he says. "I had literally no idea how to make a drink at all, then last year I was a finalist in the Best Bartender in New Orleans contest. She bought me books on bartending. Last year for my birthday she gave me a compendium of stories by a guy who owned a bar in New York. She was trying to instill this philosophy of how a bar runs, the old way, not the new pour system, but the real drinks way. She was really up on that. And booking. Talked about booking all the time. She would let me book scattered shows here and there, then she'd go out of town for three weeks so I'd have to do the booking for that month, or she'd start it and let me go with it. We'd discuss it; she'd critique it."

If Keller liked someone, she'd give them a chance to play, even if she'd never heard their band. Musicians also recall her as one of their most enthusiastic supporters. "One of the last things she told John (Henry, a member of the Detonations) was, 'I'm so excited because you're playing on Monday,'" Parker says. "She'd seen them 30 times, but she was damned excited to have them playing at the bar every night."

Some bars develop bad reputations for not making the headcount and the band's pay add up at the end of the night, but Keller was known for working to make sure the musicians made as much as possible. "I guarantee you, the Detonations, Dr. A Go-Go, Scully, they have CDs that came out last year because the Circle Bar financed their CDs," Parker says. "Bands are taking $500 from playing that small room."

Her level of support, matched with a passionate nature, made a mark on a lot of people. "She's so passionate," Yseult says. "When she believes in something, whether it's cracklins from her hometown or a band or whatever, she's gonna scream it with a big grin: 'You've gotta try this!' 'You've gotta check this band out! Holy shit!' She's not going to let it go until you do it, or taste it, or listen to this band."

"There was nobody that was more encouraging to me than she and more positive about everything I did and all of her friends and all the people she believed in. She was nothing but positive to them," Dennison says. "But she never saw anything positive in her own character. That's too bad because she had such a tremendous impact on so many people in so many positive ways."

KELLER HAD A PRIVATE SIDE. Her friends all knew it was there, even though she could put up a good front. "She had a good game face," Dennison says. "It wasn't that she was being phony because she truly did love people and love music and got so much joy out of being at a good party or seeing a great band or making a great show happen; all those things really did make her happy. When she had that beautiful smile on, she was happy. But at the end of the day, it wasn't the kind of happiness that can lift your spirit; it wasn't a deep satisfaction."

Graphic artist and friend Hans Haveman agrees: "She has her social face. She smiles that smile that would knock you down; I used to ask her if I could eat soup out of her dimples. She never looked upset; even when she was not happy, she put on that face."

"There were things she'd get upset about here and there, but I'd say, 'Hey, forget about it. Let's get dinner. Let's go shopping,' Yseult says. "And she'd joke about it -- 'I'm so upset. I've got to get new clothes, I'm too skinny.'"

In the late summer, Keller was putting on that face more than usual, partially due to boyfriend issues. "It seems like with girls, that's usually what upsets us the most," Yseult says. Boyfriend issues, disagreements with some of the Circle Bar's partners, and concerns about aging in the rock 'n' roll business left Keller overwhelmed, her friends say.

"I'd always ask her if we could help her, but Kelly was pretty independent and she didn't like the idea that she may have to depend on us," says Reginald Keller. "She wanted to do her own thing."

Kelly's friends noticed she was losing weight. A couple of weeks before she died, she asked her mother to say a novena for her. "My wife told me about it but didn't elaborate on it," her father says.

Nobody wants to say much about the night Kelly Keller died. The general impression is that the combination of alcohol and Xanax, which she took to help her sleep, was too much for her after the weight loss. -- the online version of the Physician's Desk Reference -- confirms that the combination of Xanax and alcohol is potentially fatal. Perhaps because Xanax isn't the sort of drug associated with rock 'n' roll deaths, a story started circulating that her death was heroin-related. One blogger in New York who claims to have known Keller in the Coney Island High days repeated the heroin story online, even though she admitted it didn't sound like her at all.

Keller's friends all vehemently refute the heroin story. They similarly bristle at rumors of suicide. The Saturday after Keller died, anyone who broached that possibility was in danger of being thrown out of the Circle Bar.

"My whole plan was to open up until I got drunk enough that I couldn't run the bar anymore," says Parker. "I wanted to '86' people, but I didn't do it that night that I remember. I do remember yelling loudly that every motherf--ker who has a car is going to take another motherf--ker and we're all going to f--kin' go out to Eunice and we're all going to show support. I turned down the stereo and yelled, 'We're all f--kin' going!' Then I went to the Spellcaster (Lounge in Bywater) and did the same thing."

Haveman, who was with Keller the night she died, says plainly, "Honestly, it wasn't intentional." Yseult doesn't believe it was suicide either. "She was so excited: 'I can't wait for this show tomorrow and that show next week.' She was always so excited about so many upcoming things. Always."

"WHEN SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENS," Lilli Dennison says, "everybody all the sudden is a best friend, the oldest friend, or the closest person or the last person to do this with her. People want to get close to the tragedy; I think that's human nature, and I don't know why.

"Kelly was a bright light that people gravitated toward, and a lot of people didn't really know her very well but they maybe thought they did. That's cool for them. She really did give a lot of people a lot."

After Keller's death, Dennison found herself taking calls not only from New Orleans, but Boston, New York, and all over the world. At some point, she finally turned her phone off. "That support, I savor it, but it's been hard to go through it over and over and over again," she says.

The Circle Bar will continue as it is, say its owners. "It won't be the same, but we'd like it to be as close as it can be," Dave Clements says. Keller's parents are keeping her share and staying in the business in her memory.

The Sunday after Keller's death, Nathaniel Mayer played the Circle Bar. It was the sort of show Keller would have loved -- a great R&B singer backed by a hot Detroit garage band, the Shanks. In fact, the show was unofficially billed as a tribute to Kelly. But there were few -- if any -- mentions of her during the show. It was back to business. Some watched and danced like it was just another night, while Keller's friends swapped stories at the bar. "There'll be plenty of time for more reverent tributes -- and more irreverent tributes -- as well," Dennison says. "Kelly was an extremely complex mind. She was brilliant. She read voraciously. She read philosophy, she read autobiography, she read history. She knew more about music than almost anybody I've known in my life. She was also interested in art and, you name it, the girl ate up the stuff. She was curious. She was a complex mind that was also dealing with a lot of emotional issues."

click to enlarge According to her father, Kelly Keller opened the Circle Bar because she wanted to book bands, get a good variety of music and promote music. "That's what she wanted to do and that's what she did," Reginald Keller says. - HANS HAVEMAN
  • Hans Haveman
  • According to her father, Kelly Keller opened the Circle Bar because she wanted to book bands, get a good variety of music and promote music. "That's what she wanted to do and that's what she did," Reginald Keller says.
click to enlarge "She's so passionate," says Sean Yseult (center) with - Suzanne Despres and Keller. "When she believes in - something, whether it's cracklins from her hometown or - a band or whatever, she's gonna scream it with a big - grin: You've gotta try this!'" - LEFTY PARKER
  • Lefty Parker
  • "She's so passionate," says Sean Yseult (center) with Suzanne Despres and Keller. "When she believes in something, whether it's cracklins from her hometown or a band or whatever, she's gonna scream it with a big grin: You've gotta try this!'"
click to enlarge "Kelly taught me how to bartend," Lefty Parker says. "I - had literally no idea how to make a drink at all, then last - year I was a finalist in the Best Bartender in New Orleans - contest." - HANS HAVEMAN
  • Hans Haveman
  • "Kelly taught me how to bartend," Lefty Parker says. "I had literally no idea how to make a drink at all, then last year I was a finalist in the Best Bartender in New Orleans contest."
click to enlarge Once she picked up Detroit R&B legend Nathaniel Mayer (right) in her station wagon and he asked, Where's my limousine?'" The two nonetheless became friends, and he thanks her in the liner notes for his new album. - LILLI DENNISON
  • Lilli Dennison
  • Once she picked up Detroit R&B legend Nathaniel Mayer (right) in her station wagon and he asked, Where's my limousine?'" The two nonetheless became friends, and he thanks her in the liner notes for his new album.
click to enlarge According to Lilli Dennison (above center, flanked by members of rock band the Upper Crust), "Kelly was a bright light that people gravitated toward." - LILLI DENNISON
  • Lilli Dennison
  • According to Lilli Dennison (above center, flanked by members of rock band the Upper Crust), "Kelly was a bright light that people gravitated toward."


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