“Heart of Gotham” – Pete Kennedy

5 stars (out of 5)

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Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.inddLet’s just say this really quickly and get it out of the way. “Heart of Gotham” is a truly exceptional and accomplished album. It’s a genuine labour of love, put together over a period of about ten years by Pete Kennedy when he wasn’t touring with his wife Maura as The Kennedys, producing albums for The Kennedys and Maura as a solo artist, and touring with Maura in Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. This is the work of an enormously talented musician which taps in to Pete’s knowledge of musical and cultural history and the history of New York City itself.

“Heart of Gotham” is more than just a concept album, it’s a song cycle. It starts and ends in Union Square in the morning and there are elements and themes which recur as Pete declares his love for his city. You can play the album, let it wash over you and just enjoy the outrageously good playing and melodies, but you’ll be missing out if you do, because there are carefully-crafted references in the lyrics that add layers to the meaning of the songs. There’s a strong autobiographical strand running through the piece with references not only to Pete’s life, but also the lives of his ancestors, who came to America as migrants (or possibly more accurately as refugees) from Ireland and helped to build the city.

The album opens with “Union Square”, layers of chiming and shimmering guitars and Pete’s rasping voice setting the scene for the album while reeling off a hugely evocative list of real and fictional characters. It’s a stunning opening to the album with a widescreen feel which hints at early Springsteen and really should be a radio track. “The Bells Rang” is, not surprisingly, a celebratory song. There’s no explicit reference to the subject of the celebration, but references to Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King and ‘the rising son’, suggest the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It’s warm and it’s tremendously uplifting. “Williamsburg Bridge” is partly autobiographical, linking the present to the past and referencing Robert Moses, the architect of much of New York’s landscape; it’s a love song to a partner and to the city.

“Never Stopped Believin’” is part autobiography/part musical manifesto set to a gentle finger-picked guitar backing, while the folky “Unbreakable” again links present to past, this time using Pete’s ancestors and their companions who physically shaped the city. “Rise Above” contrasts a slightly gloomy verse with a lovely harmony-rich chorus, while the mandolin-driven “People Like Me” celebrates the outsiders who can live, thrive and even find each other in the big city. “Harken” contrasts the jangling Roger McGuinn-like guitar with alienation which is an inevitable part of life in a big city while “Asphodel” blends Buddy Holly with Blondie and is packed with literary references delivered at the top of Pete’s tenor range.

“Riot in Bushwick” is the song where Pete finally cuts loose as a guitar player, paying homage to the early electric players like Les Paul and Charlie Christian and it sits somewhere between jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll. The lyrics are humorous, but it’s all about the guitar; Pete plays more inventive fills in this one song than most players can manage in an entire album, and it’s great fun. “New York” looks at the flipside of alienation in the city, a feeling that the city itself, and the people in it can be a healing force, again with a hint of Byrds guitar before we approach the end of the cycle.

Both “Gotham Serenade” and “Union Square (reprise)” explore different facets of the album’s opening track. “Gotham Serenade” opens with some guitar feedback creating a Celtic drone and adds verses which take us into the night in the city, with an extended guitar solo that’s just gorgeous as the second half of the song, and the album closes with a stripped-down reprise of the opening song set at dawn again, but this time it’s the end of the day, and the cycle’s just about to start again.

“Heart of Gotham” is an album you can listen to again and again, and each time you’ll hear something new. Pete Kennedy is a musician, a poet, a philosopher and a scholar who has woven all of those strands into this magnificent creation which evokes the history and soul of New York through its places, its people and its culture. At a time when music is seen by a whole generation as disposable and is often devoid of creativity, Pete has created a work that overflows with ideas (musical and lyrical) and is intensely moving. This is essential listening.

Out on October 16. Available from The Kennedys website.