What emerged from John (Steppenwolf) Kay’s presentation/mini-concert at the Lobero last Sunday was an entertaining, articulate journey through his thus-far 77-year life. He opened the evening with a clip of himself as a black leather-clad, chest-baring, mustachioed Steppenwolf leader belting out the band’s iconic hit “Born to be Wild” before a thousands-fold arena crowd. Onstage at the Lobero, modern-day Kay asked the telling question, “How did that guy turn into this guy?” pointing to a photo of himself tenderly holding an orangutan in Borneo.
His multimedia presentation answered the question, shifting starkly from his rock star wild life to life as an impassioned wildlife advocate. The German-born youth embraced music in Toronto and struck pay dirt in Los Angeles with Steppenwolf, but now champions endangered elephants and other animals, especially in Africa. After “retiring” from the music business in 2010, Kay and his wife of 50-plus year, Jutta Maue, tend the Maue Kay Foundation, funding worthy conservancy groups.
In the show’s half-hour musical portion, Kay sported a dobro for his bluesy, slide guitar turns, and an acoustic guitar for folk-rockier “statement songs.” Program-wise, he dodged any urge or implied crowd pressure to trot out the old, golden radio hits, working more in Howlin’ Wolf world than Steppenwolf world.
We were reminded of the strong blues base and spicing in his music (including the riff-trudging “Born to be Wild”) with Kay-ized blues classics “Walkin’ Blues,” “Corrina, Corrina,” and “Meet Me at the Bottom.” His folk songs addressed a slice of Baby Boomer life, the dangers of corporate control, and a paean to his fellow wildlife conservancy warriors, some killed by poachers in the line of duty. “Our fellow creatures have a right to live,” he summed up. “Their survival is in our hands.”