Unlike some blues and blues-rock bands of recent vintage, harmonica player and guitarist Kenny “Stringbean” Sorensen knows how to front an ensemble. Whether in a trio setting at BT Bistro on Route 1 South, where he appears on Wednesday nights, or working with a quartet or in a five-piece band, Sorensen and his fellow veteran musicians know how to play with a sense of dynamics and how to orchestrate their song selections to end sets on a musical high point.
And Sorensen should know. He began playing blues professionally in 1980, in Wildwood, with a band called the Surreal McCoy’s. He then worked around Asbury Park with Big Danny Gallagher, Vini Lopez, and other musical characters there for years before he ventured out and formed his own group, Stringbean and the Stalkers, in the early 1990s, with bassist David Meyers. Sorensen has shared stages at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Levon Helm to Billy Hector and literally dozens of Asbury Park area acts.
Sorensen, based in Ocean Grove, has five internationally distributed albums out under his own name for the Ocean Township-based BluesLeaf Records: “Layin’ Low,” “Ride of Your Life,” “Live at the Ragin’ Cajun,” “Little Monster,” and “Hey Hey.” Distribution and marketing from BluesLeaf has helped him gain a following in far-flung places like Sydney, Australia, various parts of Europe, as well as in Miami and other parts of Florida. While he makes several musical trips to Miami each year, he has yet to get to Australia.
Yet Stringbean is perfectly happy playing his Wednesday night residency at BT Bistro. He also leads a quartet on Sunday evenings at the Ragin’ Cajun restaurant in Belmar.
At BT Bistro Stringbean’s trio usually includes bassist Wilbo Wright and drummer Sim Cain. Other veteran area musicians will often sit in, including “Barbecue Bob” Pomeroy, Chris Harford, and others.
Sorensen says he likes that BT Bistro owner Bobby Trigg (who also owns the Ferry House on Witherspoon Street) “does what he does for the love of the music, and he wants to hear what he likes.” Trigg’s staff shuts off TVs near the band so the audience may focus on the musicians as they dine.
When booking musicians for the restaurant, Trigg says, “We look for the same kinds of characteristics that Stringbean and Chris Harford have. You have to be able to read the crowd and respect what’s going on in the dining room, so maybe your first set will be quieter until you figure out what’s going on. Then, when you see the dining room is empty later, you can turn it up a little. If you come in and read the crowd, your chances of getting booked again are better.” He likes to book new acts into BT Bistro at least three or four weeks in a row, “to see how they draw.”
“I don’t want to think too much about it, and I try to make it predictable so people know who is playing here depending on the day of the week,” Trigg says. “I like that people know there will be some consistency: the first Friday of the month is Ernie White, and the last Friday is DJ Darius.”
Sorensen, 52, is a recently retired ship pilot in New York harbor, and trained with the Sandy Hook Ship Pilots’ Association, which requires 10-year apprenticeship prior to becoming a full pilot. He was raised in Holmdel. His father was also a ship pilot with the Sandy Hook Pilots’ Association. His mother was a homemaker. Sorensen began playing guitar as a 15-year-old and added on the harmonica — with a neck wrack — a short time later.
“I liked British bands like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton,” he says in an interview at the Bistro, where he and his band will often play two long sets as opposed to three shorter ones.
He studied marine biology for two years at Richard Stockton College in Pomona before dropping out in 1979 and deciding to join the ranks of the Sandy Hook Ship Pilots’ Association. “At points, it was a very high-stress job,” Sorensen says of his days piloting ships in the harbor, “because there’s often so little of a margin for error.” He likens the experience to being an air traffic controller.
“In summers between college, I played just harmonica with a band called the Surreal McCoy’s in Wildwood.” Neal Thomas, who fronted the band at that point, remains a good friend and often sits in with Stringbean and the Stalkers, playing accordion and a range of other instruments.
Veteran ship pilot that he is, he studies his audiences as carefully as he would an outgoing tidal flow, just waiting for the right moments to connect. At his gigs, Sorensen says, “I usually just play what I like, what feels right for the moment, and I wing it. Sometimes it’s not what you expect. You think people want to hear all fast songs but when you suddenly play a slow one, that’s how you get through to your audience.”
Since forming Stringbean and the Stalkers nearly 20 years ago, Sorensen has been writing, performing, and recording his own originals as well as classic and obscure blues tunes. “For songwriting, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to Keith Richards, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon,” he says.
Despite widespread praise for Stringbean’s albums in professional journals like “Blues Revue” and similar magazines — and far-off radio stations in Australia and around Europe — other than a few trips to Miami each year, and several appearances at the Riverwalk Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Sorensen has not done a great deal of touring.
“I’ve been pretty much stuck in New York City and New Jersey and Florida.” In other words, Stringbean and the Stalkers could use a good booking agent.
He says the high points in his performing career include the chance to share the stage and backup legendary Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin earlier this year at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park. Another was in the early 1990s, opening for James Cotton in the ballroom at the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel in Asbury Park.
In recent years, he’s even added the occasional reggae or classic country tunes to his live shows. “To me, it all comes from blues, and so it’s not much of a stretch to play a reggae song or a country song. I listen to it. If I like it, I’ll play it.”
Kenny Stringbean and the Stalkers, Wednesdays, 9 p.m., BT Bistro, 3499 Route 1 South, Princeton. No cover charge. 609-919-9403 or www.btbistro.com/entertainment.