Front & Center: Tom Kent

By Vicky Moon

Tom Kent has worked with just about anybody you could name, plus a few you probably couldn't. He is so well-known among local and national musicians that he doesn't even need to list his business in the Yellow Pages - all his business comes by word of mouth. He is a veritable history of rock and roll from the heyday of Led Zeppelin to today's heavy metal but he is also well-acquainted with the blues, bluegrass, and a little of everything else in between. In short, Tom Kent's life is music. But even though he's sure to be a major player in the next concert you attend, you probably won't see him. He's not the ultimate session player, but he might be even better: Tom Kent is the ultimate sound, lighting and production guy.

It's not everybody who can do his job, either. The more I talked with Tom about his life as the most famous production person in the Louisville area, the more I realized you have to be called to this life, called by the music and the technology of the music. Kent received his call while still in his teens. "During the Sixties, I was like a little hippie watching live entertainment at the skating rinks," he recalled. "I always liked watching the light man dance around and run the lights and so I tried to build [a lighting system], but my father came out and said 'No, no you're gonna burn the house down, you can't do that!'"

Thwarted temporarily on his path to production greatness, Kent continued to attend live shows and become more interested in the sound and lighting that made those shows so great. "In the Seventies, I saw Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Foghat, Peter Frampton, Kansas, ZZ Top - I've always liked all those groups. And, of course, I partied! I started having keg parties in Catholic churches and most of the bands [that I booked for these parties] didn't have any equipment. I was a machinist by then, so I started buying equipment [for the bands to use]. I started out as a light man...but one thing led to another and I decided to start buying sound [equipment] about ten years ago...I kept at it and kept at, and the need in this town kept growing and radio stations kept calling...Well, it's almost an addiction," he admitted. And practically any local musician will tell you that it's an addiction that has grown into the most successful sound, lighting and production business in the area. Besides the local bars and clubs, Kent can be seen running the sound and lighting for such major events as the Derby Festival, the Garvin Gate Blues Festival and the New Year's Festival in downtown Louisville. "I'm like a McDonald's," Kent laughed. "A variety of people come to me for their 'value meals': I've got sound, lights - I even have a portable stage now - so they come to me!"

Kent is not only a one-man production wizard, he's a generous supporter of the local industry. "I try to keep all my purchases in town here instead of mail order or something like that," he said, reasoning that the local businesses like Mom's Music and The Doo Wop Shop often sent business his way and "they've seen me grow from homemade light boards and one truck to quite a good stock of equipment".

That stock of equipment has grown mainly to keep up with the variety of shows that he produces - not an easy task if you consider that most people want a quality of sound in a live performance that is as close as possible to the sound quality of a recording.

"I feel like I need to write a book or paper about how the market has educated people's hearing, "Kent said. "You think about it: imagine yourself in 1920 . . . listening to hand-cranks. And over the years, the process of music has developed until 78s, 33s, 45s, 8-tracks, reel-to-reels, cassettes, CDs, Surround Sound until now you're 75 and the market has trained you to be very picky."

The same people who used to listen to crap in the Sixties and Seventies are now saying 'did you hear that? I heard distortion over here! It's too loud!'"

Kent also revealed that there are variables as well in producing a live show. "You can't blind people with the lights, people want to see the artist," he explained, "and I don't just run sound [and lights]. Ninety percent of the shows I do, it's my responsibility to do everything: get the bands in, onstage, sound checked and out the door; fed and back onstage in the proper amount of time sounding good; [and make sure] nothing is falling down, nobody falling off the stage, nobody climbing on the stage, so I'm the nucleus."

As one would expect from a man who has played such an integral part of the music scene and has seen music come and go throughout the years, who has toured the United States with bands and has met and worked with just about everybody in the industry, Kent has some stories to tell.

"I've met a lot of people, a lot of nice people . . . a lot of not-so-nice people, too!," he laughs. "[This job] is never boring, it's always challenging. You go from a church where you go in and set up for an Easter production and then the next day you're doing a male revue!"

An example of the variety of his work was the Daniel Boone Festival in Barbersville, Kentucky. "We got down there the night before and they come waking me up at six-thirty in the morning - 'Let's go, Tommy! Let's go get breakfast!'...and there's fog everywhere. So we get to the site around seven-thirty, eight o'clock and there's still fog around and the sun hasn't come out much yet. So were on this stage...setting up for Exile, and I look out into the fog and I see this coonskin cap on this old man holding a big Kentucky long rifle, wearing a Daniel Boone outfit just smiling at me, watching me work!" As easily as Kent tells this story, he talks about hard rock and alternative shows where he's had to pull some of his equipment offstage in order to protect it from the beer bottles and cans being thrown around the room. In just one conversation with Tom it is easy to see that at this point in his career, very little could phase him. "It's like joining a circus" is how he described his job at one point.

And in such a crazy circus, why is Kent so successful at what he does? Simple, he says. He's reliable. "My main trick, the reason I excel over all my competition is if somebody paged me right now and said 'Tom, my PA blew out and were down here at Phoenix Hill and we have a show in an hour. Can you help us out?' I can get up, go to my house, pick up a set of keys and start a truck with a PA already loaded."

While Kent was still talking about this, his pager began to beep. I could only imagine that it was some poor band with a blown PA stranded at some club somewhere, but as Tom headed to the phone I was sure of one thing: if that band needed help,

they had definitely called the right man and it wouldn't be long until yet another audience was rocking to the sounds and sights produced by the best one-man show in Louisville - Tom Kent.