Soaring Guitars and Other Wonders.
That hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s and into the early 90’s, Connelly’s old band The Headlights were a mainstay on stages throughout Florida and the southeast. Connelly’s galvanic playing lifted them from the realm of rootsy folk-rock into another sphere altogether. With a focused intensity, Connelly’s soaring flights of fretwork had the power to transport audiences on a nightly basis.
Eventually, the music industry began to notice. After winning the “Willie Nelson Talent Search” in 1986, a flurry of record company interest began to stir. Eventually signing with Airborne, a fledgling Nashville label, in 1988 the band flew to Music City to record their debut LP, Test the Spirit, only to watch it die on the vine as the record company folded before its release.
Back to the Clubs—and Back From Rio with Roger McGuinn.
For Connelly, this turn of events was unbelievable kismet. As a 12-year-old kid hearing the bracing jangle of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambouring Man” on his transistor radio, McGuinn’s music had had an immediate life-changing impact on Connelly. “He was my hero,” says Connelly, “When I had just started playing guitar, I used to tell people [McGuinn] was my cousin. The Byrds were my favorite band.”
The Headlights toured America and Europe with McGuinn, sharing stages along the way with other greats including The Band, The Grateful Dead and ZZ Topp. They played The Tonight Show (still under Johnny Carson’s reign at the time), and for many of the tour stops, they opened the shows playing their own material.
Back from the Road and into a Zen State.
For those who knew Connelly well, it seemed fitting that his next step would be to start his own recording studio. After all, his four-track demos often sounded better than the output of many of the area’s professional studios. Dubbing his basement studio the Zen Den, over the next decade or so Connelly’s client list grew steadily along with his reputation as one of the Tampa scene’s preeminent producers. He eventually outgrew the Den, moving into the former American Music Works—now called simply “Zen Recording”—where he still engineers and produces bands from throughout the central Florida region and beyond.
Generous to a fault, Connelly lavished his talents not only on his clients’ recordings, but at their live shows as well. Connelly’s legend as a jaw-droppingly good guitarist continued as he often sat in with a variety of friends and clients, including Ronny Elliott and The Nationals, Rebekah Pulley and the Reluctant Prophets, Uncle John’s Band, and dozens more. In 2007, Connelly officially joined Woltil’s acclaimed band, The Ditchflowers. And once every year or two, the opportunity would arise for a Headlights reunion. The band were usually happy to oblige. Eventually, keyboardist Brad Trumbull joined Connelly, Dempster, DiPietra and Woltil to round out the current lineup of Steve Connelly and the Lesser Gods.