By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
The Kensingtons, a relatively new local band, is made up of five neighbors who knew each other very little, if at all, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Homewood residents Ben Leach, Bob Blalock, Ethan White, Sam Gentle and Chris Horwedel all live on the same street, Kensington Road. What brought them together was a desire to play music and have some fun during the height of pandemic shutdowns.
“To me … there have certainly been some very difficult and hard things that have happened over the past year with COVID, but this has been a huge silver-lining,” said Leach, the lead vocalist.
For about a year, the band has performed exclusively in their neighborhood.
They’ll soon break out of their bubble to play at the Homewood City Schools Foundation’s Grateful Dads concert fundraiser Sept. 26 at Pizzeria GM in West Homewood.
Also included in the lineup will be the band Thrine, which also includes Homewood residents.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to be a part of something that is raising money and giving back to the city schools,” Leach said. “We were thrilled we were asked.”
Each member of the band has a connection to the organization and its impact on the Homewood community. Leach’s oldest son just started kindergarten at Shades Cahaba Elementary School and Gentle has kids who will soon age into the school system.
While Blalock’s kids have all graduated, he was a member of the Homewood City Schools Foundation during their time in the school system.
“It is a wonderful organization that provides great support for teachers and schools in Homewood,” Blalock said. “When Ben mentioned the possibility, I was all in.”
Bonding During Lockdown
What both Leach and Blalock find to be one of the most fascinating things about the formation of The Kensingtons is that they hardly knew each other before the pandemic.
“My wife and I have lived here for about nine or 10 years, and we didn’t really know any of our neighbors,” Leach said. “We should have, but we just didn’t.”
White and Blalock were the only two who had an established relationship, but it was simply as next-door neighbors.
During the initial shutdowns, the two got to talking at one of White’s lawn parties. He would host them during the weekends with neighbors gathering for drinks outdoors while social distancing.
“Ethan kept talking up this idea of starting a neighborhood band,” Blalock said. White knew that Blalock played guitar and wanted him to sign on.
Meanwhile, Leach had caught wind of White’s lawn parties and was hoping to join in on the fun.
“I drove by one day and told my wife, Laura, we’ve got to get invited to this. We need to be a part of this,” he said.
As fate would have it, Leach ended up connecting with White through work. Through his job in commercial banking with Progress Bank, he worked on a PPP Loan for White’s physical therapy clinic, EW Motion Therapy.
Leach noticed White’s Kensington Road address, dropped some hints, and White invited him to bring his wife and kids to the next event.
At his first party, Leach was asked the inevitable question, “Do you play any instruments?”
“Before I could say anything, my wife blurted out, ‘You know, Ben was in a band in college. He was a singer,’” Leach said.
While he noted that the last time he was in a band was many years ago, it didn’t matter. He was asked to come back to White’s house on Saturday to play around.
“It took on a life of its own,” Blalock said.
White, Blalock and Leach worked through a couple of songs that Saturday and were soon approached by Gentle. He’s a physician working in neonatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but he has a history as a seasoned musician.
“He walked up one day and said, ‘Guys, I see what you’re doing here and I’m in. Let’s do it,’” Leach said with a laugh.
The group now had a drummer, all of the core makings of a band, and they began meeting on Saturdays to play around with some songs.
Their first gig was an outdoor neighborhood concert for Blalock’s wife’s 60th birthday.
“We were terrible,” Blalock said, mostly in jest. “We stunk. Especially the lead guitarist, which was the role I was trying to fill.”
Despite being critical of themselves, the band caught the eye of Horwedel – a seasoned guitarist who wanted to help out.
“Chris is a phenomenal guitarist,” Leach said. “He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever played with.”
“He is much, much better than I could ever dream of being,” Blalock said. “He rounded out the band and at that point we didn’t need three guitarists. We didn’t have a bass player, so I thought I could figure that out.”
Throughout the pandemic, the band has been practicing once or twice a week and periodically hosting concerts for the neighborhood while developing quite a following.
Leach notes that one of their last shows in May had an audience of somewhere between 200 and 250 people.
“We’re trying to move beyond Sam’s front porch,” Bob said. “So, this show coming up on Sept. 26 will be the first big step.”
The band also plans to do host a neighborhood show on Halloween, followed by a performance at a fundraiser for Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic School in mid-November.
Audiences will hear an eclectic set list when they see the Kensingtons, but mostly they play alternative and classic rock ranging from the White Stripes to the Rolling Stones.
“It reflects our ages,” Blalock said. “I’m the old guy in the band, so I like classic rock, and some of the other guys like Ben and Sam are much younger.”
Blalock has found that learning to play her bandmates favorite songs has broadened his taste in music.
He’s developed a new appreciation for familiar songs that he had previously overlooked, for example “Times Like These” by Foo Fighters and “Tomorrow” by Silverchair.
In turn, he offered up “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground, which is now one of Horwedel’s favorite songs that they play.
“COVID has just been awful – all of the sickness all of the death, businesses being shuddered or closing forever,” Blalock said. “But this was something good that came out of it for us. I’ve really enjoyed getting together with those guys and making music. I think we all do.”