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Joe 'J.D.' Kelly reignites rock act with From the Fire bandmates

J. D. Kelly of Holbrook, center, records with

J. D. Kelly of Holbrook, center, records with From the Fire bandmates Michael Sciotto, left, and Tommy Lafferty in Sciotto's Ossining, N.Y., studio, which Sciotto built. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

At 55, Joe Kelly isn't ready for a rocker; he's ready to be a rocker — again. More precisely, Kelly is getting his second shot at being the next Steven Tyler.

Back in the early '90s, Kelly, who lives in Holbrook, fronted From the Fire, a "hair band" that specialized in the kind of album-oriented rock being put out by Boston, Bon Jovi and Journey.

Fire played clubs and even caught the attention of producer Jean Beauvoir. That led to the 1992 album, "Thirty Days Dirty Nights." Kelly, who was billed as J.D. Kelly, sang lead vocals. Beauvoir, who also was a singer-musician-songwriter, later fronted the band Crown of Thorns.

The timing for "Thirty Days" couldn't have been worse. "Grunge [alternative rock] started becoming popular, and people began listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The days of the big hair and anthem rock were starting to die down," Kelly says, adding that From the Fire broke up amicably in 1992.

Most members of the group continued on a musical path — guitarist Tommy Lafferty has since joined Crown of Thorns; keyboardist Paul Morris first joined Trans-Siberian Orchestra and then Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.

Kelly was the only one who opted for "a normal life." He quit music and began working as a mechanic before starting his own fuel-management business and raising two daughters — Michaela Kremer, 23, and Johanna Kelly, 11 — with his wife, Casey.

He put his rock-star dreams behind him, and his musical past became a running joke with the family. "Anytime my daughters needed a hairband they would joke, 'Daddy was in a hair band once,' " Kelly says.

Kelly never expected a surprise call from Lafferty would revive his rocker career. "Tommy was on tour with Voodoo X and said he was playing to 10,000 people in Europe. Afterward, people would come up to him with the From the Fire CD to autograph and would ask him what the band was doing," Kelly says. "I thought nothing of it, but then Paul said the same thing was happening to him with Rainbow in Copenhagen. Mike [Sciotto], our session drummer, played with Starship for a while, and the same thing happened."

They soon discovered that copies of the album, which was released here by indie label Metropolis Records, had sold well overseas. A German label reissued "Thirty Days Dirty Nights" in 2009, which fueled the band's cult following in Europe. Though the band members had written all the songs, they didn't own the rights to the album, Kelly says.

"Typically, the person who pays for the masters, they own it," Lafferty, 58, says. "I did go online and started reading reviews on the album. And they were fantastic."

Those outpourings of praise sparked an idea with Lafferty: It was time to rekindle From the Fire. "I thought, 'We're all vertical and still breathing and can still play,' " says Lafferty, who now resides in Alameda, California. Early in his career, Lafferty lived in Wyandanch and performed with singer-songwriter Gary U.S. Bonds.

Now Fire is back with a new album, "Evil Men Do," which is available on iTunes (99 cents for each of the 10 songs) and CDbaby.com ($9.99, download only). This weekend they're playing their first rock music festival — Firefest, in Nottingham, England — where CDs of "Evil Men Do" are being pressed and will be sold. Kelly says the album also will be in the United States in a few weeks.

"The fact that people have always had a high regard for their 'Thirty Days' album and have never had the chance to see them live is enough to make them a very popular draw at the show," Firefest organizer Kieran Dragan wrote in an email. "It's like hoping to see one of your favorite bands sometime after 20 years of waiting, and then suddenly, after waiting 20 odd years — you finally have that opportunity."

 

Their rock roots

Lafferty and Kelly first started playing together in the late 1980s in a short-lived band called Broken Toys. Their look was typical of rock groups circa 1988 — ripped jeans, skintight leotards, chains and shirts open almost to the navel. Though Kelly was a rocker at night, by day he had a temp job in the library of a venture-capital firm in Manhattan.

"I showed up at work looking like a pirate," Kelly says. "I had hair down my back with red streaks in it, and I had extensions put in. My poor boss, she just grabbed her chest and said, 'No, you can't come in here like that.' She had me put my hair up in this huge ponytail. It was so big, I would be knocking stuff off shelves."

After Broken Toys disbanded, Lafferty hit the road with other bands, including Voodoo X. After returning to Long Island at the end of a tour, he learned that Sciotto and Kelly had formed a new band called From the Fire, and they were looking for a guitarist.

Lafferty got the job, and after speaking to a promoter, he landed them a gig playing at a memorial concert in Manhattan for Stevie Ray Vaughan, a musician-singer-songwriter who died in a helicopter crash in 1990. "The promoter thought he was getting Voodoo X," Kelly says.

Even though no one was familiar with From the Fire, it worked out. An exec from Metropolis liked what he heard and gave them a record deal for their first album.

Kelly's wife, Casey, knew nothing of her husband's rock adventures before they were married 15 years ago. The two had dated in high school, then lost touch before reconnecting at a 20th reunion for Farmingdale High School's Class of '77.

When he told her about From the Fire, she didn't think much about it. "I thought, 'Good, great,' " says Casey, 55, who works as a retail events supervisor. Though she was initially skeptical about her husband jump-starting a musical career at 55, she has become his biggest supporter. "It's remarkable how hard they've all worked," she says of the band. "Joe has written a lot of the songs on the CD. He just has a gift of hearing it in his head and putting it down as he hears it."

Work on "Evil Men Do" began more than a year ago, and everyone involved was surprised at how harmoniously they all worked together.

 

Creating the new album

"I've been in lots of bands, but this band has always been my favorite band," Lafferty says. "When Joe, Mike and I sing together, we're like the Long Island Bee Gees. . . . I hadn't seen Joe in 20 years until he picked me up at JFK [airport]. Within five minutes, it was like, let's get a coffee. We just picked up where we left off."

Production costs turned out to be minimal, thanks to Sciotto, who invited everyone to his home in upstate Ossining to work on the album. "I have an actual facility, a full-fledged recording studio," he says. "That's why I said, 'What are you waiting for — when you're 100 years old?' I said, 'Let's do it,' " says Sciotto, 55, who has performed with Black Sabbath and Joey Belladonna of Anthrax.

"When Mike said he had a studio, I didn't expect a multitrack, multimillion-dollar studio attached to his house," Kelly says. "So production costs are nil, and the production values leave the original album in the dust."

They even got Pat Regan, who mixed the first album, to do the same job on the new one. Not that all of the process went smoothly. The biggest delay came when Kelly developed what he thought was a case of laryngitis. "I expected to be rusty after 20 years, but not this," he says.

Kelly's doctor said he had developed gastroesophageal reflux, a form of acid-reflux disease that was affecting his vocal cords. He was put on antacids, had to stop drinking coffee and needed to elevate his upper body while sleeping. The treatment worked, and after many months' delay, he was able to do the vocals.

Many of the 10 songs on "Evil Men Do" are ones that didn't make the cut from the first album. "It's like Elton John meets Survivor meets Whitesnake," Kelly says of the album. "It's definitely not a metal thing, but has more of an edge. It's very song- oriented. It has more ballads than the first album, but maybe that's just us getting older."

One person who has already heard "Evil Men Do" is Steve Price, program director of Internet radio station ARfm, based in Derbyshire, England. In an email, he wrote, "I think it is an excellent release. It's a balanced collection of songs and will do very well, sales-wise, amongst fans of melodic rock."

Kelly's hoping that fans will also be excited about the reincarnation of From the Fire and will be as moved by the album as he was. "The first time I heard it," he says, "I literally sat down and cried like a baby."

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