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Prodigal Percussionist: Kenny Aronoff’s Berkshire Rock Star Homecoming

By Robert Burke Warren

“I was born with a lot of energy,” says drummer extraordinaire and rock star Kenny Aronoff, on the phone from a Tempe, Arizona hotel. It is the understatement of the day. Technically, he is on a break from touring with John Fogerty, taking time to talk about his upcoming event “An Evening with Kenny Aronoff,” at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday, August 23 at 7 p.m.

But Kenny Aronoff is never really “on a break.” His astonishing resume attests to that. After spending much of the ‘80s and ‘90s as the groove engine in John Mellencamp’s band, Aronoff became the most in-demand drummer in the world, recording and/or touring with The Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Sting, Lady GaGa, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Aaron Neville, Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Melissa Etheridge, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, to name but a few.

Needless to say, if he were to sound tired or distracted, it would be understandable, even expected. But he is neither. Although sleep-starved, Aronoff is friendly, funny and eager to talk about his Mahaiwe show, in which he shares his adventures in the upper (and lower) reaches of the music pantheon, as well as his system for how to achieve one’s full potential.

“I was up most of the night working on the show,” he says, sounding like a man in his twenties (he’s 62) who just got a solid eight hours of rest. “And my editor wants the manuscript of my autobiography…”

Aronoff with Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi, and Rod Stewart.

Of course he does. No musician has a story to match Aronoff’s. In “An Evening with Kenny Aronoff,” the drum master delivers that story with the verve of a real rock n’ roll raconteur, interspersing it with his own seven-step system for unlocking personal potential. He’ll recount his unique road from bar bands to the Kennedy Center Honors, and all the glitz, glamour and adventures (“I was in a near-death plane crash,” he says) of the archetypal rock star life. And he’ll play those drums, too, showing why such a wide variety of icons have him on speed dial. That alone is worth the price of admission.

He’s particularly excited to tread the boards of the Mahaiwe, where, he is delighted to tell me, everything actually began for him. Aronoff grew up in nearby Stockbridge and, as a teen, studied and performed at Tanglewood (it took him four years to get in). None other than Leonard Bernstein conducted him, which he says made his mother cry tears of joy. For Aronoff, the Mahaiwe show is a homecoming. (Proud mom is still kicking at 89.)

“Six months after I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, I saw A Hard Day’s Night at the Mahaiwe!” he says. “And now I’m on the marquee! How did this happen?”

That question is one he’ll address on August 23rd. “It seems like a miracle,” he says, “but it’s not. I fly in fancy planes, stay in fancy hotels, I’ve played SNL, I’ve beenon all the late night shows, toured the world, I’ve played for four presidents (Carter, Clinton, and Bush I and II). I am a rock star. But I grew up in a town of 3,000 people, with no blueprint for how to be a rock star, how to have this life, or how to sustain it. I figured out how to do it by myself, and now I want others to know how they can use the same steps to get the life and career they want.”

Not surprisingly, one of the steps centers on diet and exercise. Although a sexagenarian, Aronoff is an athlete, and that is key. “Doctors say my eyes and bloodwork test like I’m under 30,” he says. “Healthy life, wealthy life. Even tonight at 4 a.m., after Fogerty, I’ll be running my routine, stretching.”

Even before he was a drum god, Aronoff was a sought-after teacher, and he continues to give lessons when he’s able. He’s carved out time prior to An Evening with Kenny Aronoff to conduct a 4 p.m. master class at the Mahaiwe, which promises to be a must for musicians of any skill level or genre. As a self-taught rock drummer who subsequently studied theory and learned to read music, Aronoff, whose three instructional DVDs are still in print, is that rare player who speaks several musical languages. And he loves to share. “People started asking me for lessons by the time I was in my twenties,” he says. “I teach people how to be great at what they already can do.”

“An Evening with Kenny Aronoff”
Sunday, August 23 at 7 p.m.; Tickets: $25 / $40
Master Class at 4 p.m.; Tickets: $50
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St., Great Barrington, MA
(413) 528-0100

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