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Elon Musk is invited to tonight’s Kenn Kweder show at Smokey Joe’s.
That’s according to Kweeder, who says Musk used to work at Smoke’s. “He was a barback there, and brought me my fucking beers. The richest man in the world brought Kweder his fucking beers,” he said. “I may put that on my gravestone.”
A folk-rock musician with five albums to his name, Kweder, 70, was born in Upper Darby. National fame may have eluded him, but the man known as “the Bard of South Street” is a beloved local icon.
Smokey Joe’s owner Paul Ryan, who 30 years ago hired Kweder and guitar sidekick Mark Teague to play at the University of Pennsylvania’s favorite dive, isn’t so sure about the storied singer-songwriter’s claim.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ryan, whose father bought the venerated West Philadelphia bar back in 1952, when it was located a few blocks away at 36th and Walnut. “Musk never worked here.”
Guitarist Teague is more diplomatic. “It’s hard to say. Musk wasn’t famous when he went there, so it’s possible. I do know that Eric Trump and Ivanka used to be there. John Legend came in a bunch.”
That, in a nutshell, is the kind of wackiness of Kweder that has made him an absolute legend on Penn’s campus for the past 30 years. Did Elon Musk really bring him a beer? Who knows? Who cares? Legends are more fun than facts. And Kweder is nothing if not a legend, and one of the all-time great Philly storytellers. The Living Legend and partner Teague celebrate 30 years of making memories tonight at Smokey Joe’s with a special show that’s expected to draw in Penn alumni from far and wide.
The story of how the weekly Smokey Joe’s show came to be starts 40 years ago, when Kweder was banned from the Penn institution affectionately known as Smoke’s. “I got fired for something crazy…I was just out of control.”
Paul Ryan concurs. “He was a mess,” the bar owner agreed.
“Years later, I was bartending at a bar on Penn’s campus called the Palladium,” Kweder continued, “and Paul comes in for a beer and said, ‘Would you ever consider coming back?’ And I said, ‘I thought I was banned.” And he says, ‘No, 10 years is long enough.”
Ryan, who is a man of far fewer words than Kweder, said simply, “I brought him in and hooked him up with Mark. And he’s been there ever since.”
Teague, a highly trained musician whom Ryan claims can play any song on the planet, is the perfect partner for Kweder, who appreciates the assist. “Credit goes to Mark Teague for tolerating my insanity. He’s a serious musician, unlike myself.”
Kweder is, of course, a serious musician. But Mark is the straight man, the consummate pro, while Kweder is the wacky showman. Said Ryan, “He’s a little zany on the stage. The kids love that. They like his looseness. He works the crowd hard. Every single week. He doesn’t just stand there and play songs.”
That matches the memories of alum Alex Bregman, who attended Penn from 2004 to 2008 and said he attended many Kweder and Teague shows at Smoke’s. “It’s almost like a religious experience, everyone singing along like they’re at some arena concert. And he gets to know people.”
That’s something that everyone mentioned. It’s not just about playing a show, it’s about getting to know the audience. There’s a depth of humanity to Kweder that the crowd connects with.
“Every year, at the end of the year, when the kids are graduating, a lot of them are being sentimental, because this might be their last night together,” Teague said. “I saw him once write a poem for somebody in like 2 minutes, while she was standing there waiting, crying. He always makes time for everybody who comes up to him.”
Kweder played at Teague’s wedding. He also played at Bregman’s.
“At first the people who didn’t go to Penn were a little confused,” says Alex. “They hadn’t heard the song Heroin before” — one of Kweder’s legendary originals — “and there was a lot of confusion. But once people saw how everyone from Penn reacted, it caught on and soon it felt like Smoke’s at the wedding.”
And there you have the power of Kenn Kweder…and Mark Teague…and Smokey Joe’s. That a young man, celebrating one of the happiest days of his life, wanted it to feel like Smoke’s on a Tuesday.
“I am overwhelmed that an audience that young would get into what I’m doing,” said Kweder, who remarked that he still gets nervous. “I respect the audience, and I don’t phone it in, man. I get on that stage, it’s like killer time, ya know.”
It will be “killer time” tonight, as the show is expected to draw quite a crowd. Unlike most shows, which start at midnight, this one will start at 9 p.m. to accommodate the alumni who can’t stay up quite as late as they used to. Alumni like Bregman — and who knows, maybe Musk. Said Kweder, “He’s the kind of crazy mother fucker, he just may show up in a spaceship or something.”