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May 10 will be the 1500th consecutive Tuesday night Ken Kweder performed at Smokey Joe's.

Credit: Picasa

On a slow afternoon just over 30 years ago, Smokey Joe's owner Paul Ryan walked into The Palladium — a restaurant previously located at the center of Penn's campus — and offered one of its bartenders a chance to perform at Smokes' the following week.

That bartender's name was Kenn Kweder, a Philadelphia-based musician who was known as "Mayor of South Street" in the 1970s by fans and critics. The following week, Kweder put on the first of what would become three decades worth of Tuesday night performances.

This Tuesday, Kweder and his long-time guitarist Mark Teague will perform at Smokes' for the 1,500th consecutive Tuesday night, a streak that has seen the tenure of three Penn presidents, and thousands of students passing through the bar each week.

The May 10 anniversary show will be slightly different than his weekly Tuesday set. The night will be split into two performances, one from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and a second from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and both will feature a setlist, something incredibly unusual for Kweder as he prefers to "play to the crowd" when it comes to song choices. 

"I love Smokey Joe's and I love all you guys out there and the energy you bring," Kweder said. "There's no way me and Mark [Teague] are up there 30 years if students don't come out year after year."

Credit: Picasa Ken Kweder performs at Smokey Joe's (Photo from Ken Kweder).

Kweder, who was born in Southwest Philadelphia and has always considered the city home, said that even though he is known for the chaos of his performances and always having a good time on stage, the weight of the accomplishment is not lost on him.

"Look, the music industry is a tricky business," he said. "There have been other bars where I've played for five or 10 years. But 30 years? I'm really grateful to Paul Ryan for sticking with me all these years, and to the generations of students who keep coming out."

Over the years, Kweder has amassed a devoted following of members of the Penn community. Alumni living in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other nearby cities have hired Kweder and Teague to play large events, Kweder said. He added that many alumni have shared their plans to travel back to Penn to catch the 1,500th show.

Kweder continued to perform weekly during the pandemic on Facebook Live, but he noted that it was impossible to play off the energy of the crowd and create the same level of "pandemonium" that he craves.

As the University returned to in-person life this year, Kweder said he has been thrilled with the "incredibly loyal" Tuesday night crowds this semester. 

Engineering junior James Kearney said that Kweder's performances are "always something to remember," citing Kweder's engaging performance style and infamous personal renditions of famous songs. 

"[Kweder] is an awe-inspiring artist who is beloved by the Penn community," Kearney said. 

College senior Lark Izenson, a longtime fan of the performer, said that she believes Kweder Tuesdays are "hands down better than Sink or Swim Wednesdays," which tend to be especially well-attended given the $1 drink specials that Smokes' offers its patrons on Wednesday nights. 

When it comes to her favorite Kweder classic, Izenson said "Heroin" — one of the performer's many original hits that have become classics over the years — is one she has heard dozens of times and "never gets old."

"Even after I graduate, I’ll make sure to turn on some Kweder when I’m feeling nostalgic from my favorite Smokes' nights."

In addition to Heroin," "Remember Me" and "I Drink A Lot" are among the many "Kenn classics," all of which truly encapsulate the authentic rock style the 70-year-old performer brings to the stage. Kweder said that he never tires of playing these songs. 

"People always say, 'Don't you get tired of playing those songs?' since they're requested every week," he said. "I always tell them, 'No way, man!' I'm like a doctor, if the people want penicillin, you got to give it to them if it's going to cure them. I love it when people want the classics and I hope they don't stop asking."

Eli Moraru, who graduated from the College in December 2021 but will walk with the Class of 2022 on May 16, said that he has been bartending every Tuesday night at Smokes' for the last two years, allowing him to watch Kweder perform each week. 

He echoed both Izenson's and Kearney's sentiments regarding Kweder's talents as a performer and his ability to captivate his audience. 

"He’s a presence that can’t be ignored — he’s never in the background," Moraru said of the performer. "He is the center of attention, every performance."

For Kweder, it's the energy of the crowd that has kept him coming back with consistently renewed energy ever since his first Tuesday performance in 1992.

As for what's next, Kweder said he has no plans of ending his 30-year streak any time soon.

"If I can get another 30 years of pandemonium in, I'll consider myself lucky," Kweder said with a laugh. "As long as the students keep coming, I'll be there every Tuesday night."