Run ScrollerSo, where are the likely places to hear someone playing a Telecaster? On a British nineties indie record maybe; the black Tele was the indie guitar-slinger’s weapon of choice. On a country record maybe; James Burton has a couple of signature models. Springsteen? Albert ‘master of the Telecaster’ Collins? How about on a Europop or techno/folk album (whichever description you prefer) by a French artist writing in English and inspired by Tim Burton and David Lynch? No, wouldn’t have been my first choice either, but that’s exactly where we find this particular Telecaster doing its thing.

But this is about more than Telecasters. Talisco is based in Paris, he’s already well-known across mainland Europe (“Run” was released in France in 2014) and this is the push to crack the UK market. He’s only started singing relatively recently (if my translation of his French Wikipedia page is accurate) and that’s a huge surprise, because his voice is powerful and distinctive with a strong resemblance to Freddie Mercury on the first two Queen albums.

A couple of songs on the album, the opener “Your Wish” and “The Keys” might even sound a bit familiar because they’ve been used to soundtrack ad campaigns in the US and Europe. They’re both a bit lively and, along with “In Love” which separates them on the album, not too representative of the work as a whole.

Follow Me” has a very sixties, clean and heavy on the reverb, guitar sound while “Sorrow”, with its damped guitar riff hints at the dynamics of Link Wray’s “Rumble”. The early Queen references shine through on the multi-tracked vocals of the acoustic “So Old” and the piano and acoustic guitar arrangement of the album’s closer “Lovely”. The clean Telecaster intro of “Glory” has more than a hint of Mink de Ville’s “Spanish Stroll” and the intro and riff from “Everyone” is pure Ennio Morricone.

“Run” is an album packed with ideas and invention, striding effortlessly across musical styles from various eras with verve and panache. And Talisco does have a great voice. For my money, some of the more uptempo songs opening the album are a bit overdone, and overall it lacks a bit of focus, but it’s certainly an interesting listen and a pretty good hint that there’s much more to come.

“Run” is out in the UK on April 8th on Roy Music (ROY 60).

NightlifeOK, so just to save a bit of time, we all know about Eddie Manion, yeah? Whaddya mean, no? Where have you been for the last forty years? You really should get out more. If you want the whole nine yards, check out his Wikipedia entry, but, just for the moment, his first major gig was with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and since then he’s played with Dion, Dave Edmunds, Diana Ross, The Allman Brothers, Willy De Ville, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan and many, many more. He was part of the E Street Band for Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” tour and, more recently, he’s been touring Europe with the Light of Day Foundation raising money for Parkinson’s Disease research. His motto is ‘Have Sax, Will Travel’.

Eddie Manion plays tenor and baritone sax (mainly baritone when working as part of a horn section) as well as having a pretty good voice, which you can hear on his first solo album, “Follow Through”, released in 2004. At the end of the gargantuan “Wrecking Ball” tour, Eddie started work on his second solo album “Nightlife”, opting this time for instrumental interpretations of standards and not-quite-so-standards, rather than his own compositions. It’s a double-edged sword. Both ways you’re going to be judged; one way you’re compared with others’ songwriting, the other way you’re compared with previous versions of the same songs. So how does “Nightlife” shape up?

I guess it’s natural for anyone who’s spent their entire adult life as a professional musician to want to do their own thing once in a while. Eddie Manion’s spent a lot of time playing in horn sections in big bands where nuance isn’t always too high on the agenda, so when the window of opportunity opened, he pulled together a superb bunch of musicians to make an album placing his sax playing firmly stage centre against a backdrop that allows him to interpret songs with style and subtlety. From the album’s opener, a gorgeous version of the theme from the 1961 movie “Town Without Pity”, with its piano triplets and wah-wah trumpet, to the closer “”The Only One, from Roy Orbison’s final album, the album demonstrates Eddie’s ability to create flawless interpretations of jazz standards such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Stardust” whilst also combining Springsteen’s “City of Night” in a medley with King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade”.

Throughout “Nightlife”, Eddie Manion combines a jazz-styled finesse with a rawer rock edge to create a satisfying and varied set of instrumentals that embody great musicianship and sympathetic arrangements. If you value musical skill and the ability to pick a good tune, then you’ll love this; Eddie’s a superb player and he’s surrounded himself with like minds to produce a real musician’s album. As an added bonus, Eddie’s also a very good photographer and the CD packaging includes some of his own fabulous photos taken mainly on the “Wrecking Ball” tour; it’s the icing on the cake of a lovely album.

You can order it here.

 

It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.

 

Rita Hosking - 'Frankie and the No-Go Road' TitleConcept album? Well. I’m not quite sure that’s an adequate description for Rita Hosking’s sixth studio album, “Frankie and the No-Go Road”. You can just take it at face value as a collection of twelve beautifully-crafted songs, delivered with stripped-back folk/Americana arrangements and a striking, sometimes fragile but always impassioned, voice; it’s all of those things but it’s much more as well. The album takes the popular mythological theme of the questing hero and weaves this through the fabric of our journey through life while interleaving mystical and mythological references from various cultures. Each of the songs has a subtitle relating to the progress of the mythological hero, Frankie (whose gender isn’t specified) through their heroic quest.

But before we go any further, let’s hear it for the guys in the band; Rich Brotherton (playing virtually everything plus production and backing vocals), Glen Fukunaga (upright bass), Don Wynn (drums, percussion), Sean Feder (dobro, djembe), Kora Feder (harmony vocals) and Andy Lentz (violin) supply masterfully understated backing for Rita’s guitars, banjo, harmonica and vocals, creating an understated soundscape that evokes “Harvest” and “After the Goldrush” and perhaps the austerity of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”.

The opening songs “A Better Day” and “Wetiko” set the scene for the album; “A Better Day” is a delicate exposition, gently identifying a malaise in the writer’s life and creating the link with fictional hero Frankie. Rita’s voice, with a hint of vibrato, and the mournful harmonica create an aura of melancholy which is crying out for resolution. “Wetiko” identifies the malaise with the Native American concept of a parasitic psychosis, devouring the individual from within, relying on a sparse banjo/drums/bass arrangement to evoke menace and malice. As the album progresses the two narrative strands are woven ever tighter with episodes of denial (“Magic Carpet”) and resolve (“I See Storms”) before the quest reaches its crisis.

“Black Hole”, with its hints at a support group meeting and “Mama Said” reveal that the demons are within and always have been. The telling image is that of a dog dying of thirst but afraid to drink because of his reflection in the water in “Mama Said”; once that fear is overcome by a leap of faith, then the journey becomes easier. The quest continues with the hazardous journey home, challenges to the outcomes, and a sharing of the lessons learned in “Sing” which finally reunites the two narrative strands with a simple solution; put your faith in the natural world and express yourself freely.

“Frankie and the No-Go Road” is a fascinating and haunting piece of work; the instrumentation is sparse and the vocals powerful, yet simultaneously vulnerable, pulling us in to two narratives linking the inner and outer worlds. It’s an ambitious concept, but the deliberate musical understatement and complexity of the narratives and themes create a tremendously satisfying album which occupies the mind long after the last notes fade away.

“Frankie and the No-Go Road” is released in the UK on Friday October 30th.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - TitleNow, here’s an interesting debut. Born in Texas, brought up in Winnipeg and now based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ed Dupas has definitely paid his dues, as we oldies say, and he’s released a cracking album. He’s spent years playing acoustic covers in bars around Detroit while writing his own material and the efforts he’s made in writing and performance are evident in the quality of “A Good American Life”. This is an album that doesn’t need any production gimmicks to get its message over; the songs are strong and the simple arrangements and understated vocals are much more effective than any amount of studio tricks.

Two-thirds of the songs on “A Good American Life” have the personal themes that you might expect from an Americana singer-songwriter; “Remember My Love” and “Too Late Now” are about the singer’s perspective on broken relationships, while “With Love You Never Know” (a duet with Tara Cleveland) looks at a breakup from a female point of view and “You Don’t Get to Explain” talks about the kind of betrayal so complete that it leads to total ostracism. Ed skirts around the nature of the betrayal in an oblique style that is used in several songs on the album; it’s a particularly effective device because it reflects the way we tell our stories and it gives the songs a very human touch.

Without You” and “Whiskey Bones” are love songs, powerfully and beautifully underplayed, while “Home in Time” is the story of someone who has escaped being dragged back home by a major event. Again, it’s an oblique reference, but the song isn’t any weaker because the event is unspecified; and it’s a very powerful story. “Until Blue Comes ‘Round” is a look at the cycles of life using a colour metaphor, which is, again, highly effective.

As good as those songs are, and they’re very, very good, it’s the remaining third, including the title track, that really do it for me. It’s acceptable to be a political singer-songwriter these days: Jackson Browne’s been doing it for years, the Boss’s “Wrecking Ball” ripped in to the bankers and Shakey now has the world record for mentions of Monsanto and Starbucks on one album (and a great album, at that) but Ed’s a bit more subtle than that. “A Good American Life” (with a sneaky piano fill reference to the Bangles’ “Manic Monday”) opens the album with a look at the way we come to accept the treadmill of everyday life while “This Old Town” and “Train” explore the themes that Springsteen used on “Wrecking Ball”, the death of towns when industry vanishes and the ubiquity of bankers in modern society.

Flag” is an absolute gem of a song. Ed uses a bit of lyrical sleight of hand with a refrain of ‘red, white and blue till the day I die’ to suggest a gentle song about American patriotism then delivers the knockout punch as the flag’s folded and handed to someone’s widow. It’s a song that’s beautifully put together and incredibly moving; easy to listen to, hard to forget. All of the songs are all perfectly crafted little stories that don’t need any frills, just a gentle delivery and a willing audience. You should join that audience.

Released in the UK August 28 2015 on Mackinaw Harvest Records.

 

Double Mind TitleIt’s interesting that Toronto-based guitarist and songwriter David Celia has chosen “Double Mind” as the song and central theme for his fourth album; it suggests a dichotomy in modern life that might even extend as far as schizophrenia but, for me, the album conjures up a totally different duality. In the old football (or soccer) cliché, this one’s a game of two halves, which splits almost exactly down the middle. If it was split over two sides of vinyl, I would very happily listen to side one and ignore side two completely. So what is it about this album that provokes such a mixed reaction?

The album opens with “Welcome to the Show”, a West Coast, country-rock tinged song which demonstrates Celia’s songwriting and features some lovely guitar work. It’s a scene-setter and it gives a pretty good idea of what’s coming on the first half of the album. Vocally, he has echoes of Jackson Browne or Neil Young and the songs are rooted firmly in singer-songwriter territory dealing with the struggles of modern life (“The Grind”), looking for a soul-mate (“Speak to Me”) and the schism caused by multi-tasking (“Double Mind”). “Thin Disguise” which deals with putting on a brave face after a break-up has hint of Springsteen’s “Kitty’s Back”, particularly the walking bass line, and the album’s first half is high-quality, inventive, introspective songwriting with musical performances to back it up. The only discordant tone is “Tongues”, which moves away from relatively serious territory into something more light-hearted and contains the clunky line ‘Don’t be shy with your region of nether’; it’s not the album’s finest lyrical moment.

The light-hearted (and lightweight) “Drunken Yoga” and “Go Naked” (which mashes up Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” with Beach Boys harmonies) sound out of place on a predominantly serious album, but not as much as “Princess Katie” which is David Celia’s “Frog Chorus”; it is possible to take the Beatles comparisons too far. The album’s closing track, a German version of the opener doesn’t really add much to the listening experience, either. It’s not all unbridled levity in the second half of the album; “Want You to be Happy” is a break-up song and the album’s longest song, “Smile You’re Alive” again has a seventies singer-songwriter feel ( a bit Neil Young, a bit Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” maybe) although the discordant piano coda feels a little out of place.

Listening to “Double Mind” as an entity is a frustrating experience as it bumps along from the sublime to, well, “Princess Katie”. It’s obvious that David Celia is absolutely fizzing with musical ideas and wants to get all of them out there but I’m not convinced that they all fit together happily here. You could easily cut out the more lightweight songs and transform this into a four-star album with nine or ten very strong songs.

Double Mind” is out on August 21 on Seedling Music and David will be touring the UK in November.

 

Part One

It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.

BWB Hockley ScrollerThe first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.

DSC_0007Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.

Kennedys Gallery ScrollerNext up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.

04) Gary RollinsWell that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.

Part Two coming soon…

 

Kennedys interview titleJust before the end of their recent twentieth anniversary tour of the UK, I was lucky enough to chat to Pete and Maura Kennedy at Kings Place in London just after their soundcheck. We talked about how they met, songwriting, technology and a whole lot more. Here’s how it went:

Allan – So, twenty years together this year. I’ve heard the story but I’m sure Music Riot readers will love it. Could you tell them the story of how you met?

Pete – Well, that happened down in Austin, Texas and we always say that the only trouble with Austin is that it’s surrounded by the rest of Texas, because it’s very much a college town and not typical of the American South at all but it’s a very rock ‘n’ roll and folk and songwriter-oriented town. There’s a place called The Continental Club which is the roots music Mecca of America; I was doing a gig there and that’s where the two of us met. First we talked about music, we didn’t actually play or sing and we then met up a day later at a little songwriters gathering and when we did sing together we found out that we loved each other’s songs and we had a bit of a harmony blend and so we started writing but I had to leave right away and play with Nanci Griffith up at Telluride, Colorado. I drove up there through the desert and into The Rockies and I called Maura after the show and we really wanted to get back together. We were talking on the phone and we decided that since we both knew that we loved Buddy Holly, we would meet at the equidistant point between Austin, Texas and Telluride, Colorado and it was Lubbock, Texas which is where Buddy Holly’s from and he’s buried there. We each drove five hundred miles solo with no cellphones, so we didn’t really know that the other person was doing this and we met at Buddy Holly’s grave and we’ve really been together ever since because very shortly after that, Nanci Griffith needed another band member, a female singer to do harmonies and Maura stepped right into that role and so we’ve been working together steadily ever since we first met.

Maura – And when we left for that tour, we were both in her band but, at the airport, she told us we were going to be her support act for that tour, back in 1993, and we’d only written that one song, we didn’t have an act worked up but we didn’t tell her any of this because we didn’t want to blow that opportunity so we bluffed our way through the first couple of gigs.

Pete – The Southport Theatre was the first gig.

Maura – And by the end of the tour we had our first album’s worth of songs.

Allan – That is a great story.

Pete – We always acknowledge Buddy Holly as our patron saint…

Maura – And Nanci Griffith as the bird that pushed the little chickadees out of the nest.

Pete – She was our mentor: no doubt.

Allan – The first time I saw you was actually in this venue two years ago and that year you had one album out, last year between you, you had two albums out, this year it’s three albums. By anyone’s standards that’s pretty good going, so what can you tell me about the three albums?

Maura – For some reason, both of us were on a real writing spree over the last six to eight months and we were both writing together, both writing independently and gathering songs and it was apparent that we had more songs than we needed for one album, but it also looked pretty obvious how the songs would divide up. The songs we were writing together would be on The Kennedys album, which is called “West”, and that came out last month. Then I was working with a published poet out in California; he provided me with all these lyrics that he wrote specifically for me to write music to and these had a different quality so we decided to have all those solo songs on my album “Villanelle”, which is coming out next week. Meanwhile Pete has been working on this, I think it’s his masterpiece, he’s been working on these songs a good five years. It’s a cycle of songs set in New York City and he sings on these. People are used to him releasing instrumental albums but this is a really cool rock ‘n’ roll album and it’s called “The Heart of Gotham” and that’s coming out in June. So rather than take the twentieth anniversary as a moment to look back we charged straight ahead.

Allan – So apart from having three albums of new material, over the years, how do you keep the live shows fresh?

Maura – Oh, that’s easy. For the past few years we’ve been doing all-request shows. Now we’ve got all this new material and we’re playing a lot of that but three albums is more than you can do in one show, so we’re mixing that up and playing a lot of new material this time. We always get people who have come to our shows before and they have requests so we try to honour as many of those as we can but the shows in the past four or five years have been really audience-driven and that keeps it fresh for the ones who come back to more than one show a year and it keeps it really fresh for us; we have to stay on our toes to remember all those songs.

Pete – We literally go through the audience right before the show and write down what people want to hear and that’s the setlist for that night, so every show is different. Right now we’re not doing that format because we have so many new songs we want to introduce those to the audience.

Maura – Although we have been getting some requests and last night we got requests for songs we haven’t played in a very long time, so we were brave and played them and it was fun.

Allan – That’s very like the New Jersey bands, Springsteen and Southside Johnny, they rely a lot on feedback from the audience and the musicians are good enough to do it as well.

Pete – I think because they came up playing in clubs and bars, and there you better play what people want to hear or they’ll throw things at you so you get used to pleasing the crowds, so to speak, and we’re lucky because, and I’m sure Bruce and Southside feel the same way, we have fans who know all our songs and they’ll ask for different songs from our catalogue so we can resurrect those.

Maura – I think maybe a lot of bands will get people who come out and see them once or twice; we have a lot of fans that come to every show that they can and so, to keep it fresh for them, it was a deliberate decision to make it audience-driven, for them more than anything else. It’s good for us too, but it was really to keep them coming back.

Allan – When I looked the twentieth anniversary thing, I looked back to 1995 and I thought that so many things have changed since that period in the music business…

Maura – In the world…

Allan – How have you reacted to the changes that have happened in the music business? Do you think it’s helped or hindered you?

Maura – There are so many different aspects to it. I remember when our very first album came out, “River of Fallen Stars”, it was on the very first Americana chart, there wasn’t such a thing before and nobody really knew what Americana was. At that time, independent artists really had a wide-open doorway into the music industry; radio stations were playing our stuff and there was very varied radio across the United States and I think that was probably true here too, and then things tightened up. The digital thing has really been difficult for a lot of people and I’m sure that our record sales in the traditional outlets are not as healthy as when we started but our audience, the baby boomers largely, are a segment of the population that has always valued music and they consider themselves to be patrons of the arts, so they come to shows and they buy records form us. In fact, I’ve often had people say: ‘How do you make more money, if I buy it from Amazon or from you?’ and they really want to know. I don’t know what we’d do without them, but we’re baby boomers too and we have the same outlook as far as the value of music is concerned.

Allan – It’s certainly my experience that most of the bands I see now aren’t really making any money out of record sales so people feel they have to buy a CD or t-shirt at the gig so that something goes back to the people that are making the music.

Pete – Record shops don’t really exist, in The States anyway, so it’s not like you’d put out a record and you sit back and wait for cheques to roll in (which never happened to us anyway) but that’s not a paradigm that even exists any more, so you really have to be playing gigs, which is OK, it’s been like that ever since the first cavemen were banging on rocks. They went out and played gigs and people gave them vegetables or whatever and this is basically that same system.

Allan – You seem to have embraced the social media side of things as well. I suspect that works well for you.

Maura – When we first started we had a mailing list and we would put stamps on and stick things in the mail and it was very expensive – it would cost about a thousand dollars to send out one mailer. One really good aspect of the digital world is that we’re able to contact our fans directly at no cost and what happened over the years is that we went from just putting out an electronic newsletter to embracing a number of social media outlets, not all of them, but the ones our fans use, Twitter and Facebook and I think what’s really important, and it’s worked for us, is to take a multi-pronged approach and get the word out in all the different realms. That way you’ll get a couple of people here, a couple of people there; it’s still word of mouth for us, it’s just that it’s digital now.

Allan – I can certainly see with your fans that social media enables you to create a community. It’s not so much artist and audience it’s everybody in it together.

Maura – People post photos and videos and they make song requests via social media and so they really do feel a part of it. One thing I do a lot if we’re coming to a town and ticket sales might not be as robust as we’d like, I’ll say ‘Hey guys, tell your friends we could really use your help on this show and we’ll love you forever’. And I find people really want to help; they do get the word out, they share that information and they really have a hand in helping us in more ways than just buying tickets and records.

Allan – It struck that your music seems to cross an awful lot of boundaries. How would you define it and who would you say has influenced you, apart from Buddy Holly?

Pete – Maura mentioned that we were on the first Americana chart and when we saw that we immediately had our own definition of Americana. A different one developed that was sort twangy, honky-tonk country and was restricted to just that and we never felt that was the entire breadth of American music. We do that stuff, our song “West” is a twangy country song because we love Gram and Emmylou and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and stuff like that, but we don’t restrict ourselves to that at all. So we include George Gershwin and soul and jazz – that’s one of the great American art forms along with blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel; those things are all tied in together so Americana encompasses all of that stuff. Even “Closer Than You Know” has a kind of impressionistic feel to it and that’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn who were very heavily influenced by French Impressionism, so that brings that in too. Someone said the other day ‘You play a little Spanish sometimes’ and I said ‘Well, if you go down to the border of Texas, that’s the way people play down there’. So we’re trying to cover the entire geography because that’s what we do in our car and we try to do it musically too. We have the broadest possible definition of Americana.

Allan – Do you have a particular method of writing that you always use?

Maura – No, and that’s a real blessing; because we write in different ways, the music evolves over time. Our very first songs that we wrote together, “Day In and Day Out” was the very first song we wrote together, Pete gave me the title and I sang the title back to him and we wrote everything, music and words, together. The second song that we wrote together was “River of Fallen Stars” and he gave me an entire lyric sheet and I put a melody to that. On the album “Closer than You Know”, for a lot of those songs, Pete had recorded instrumental tracks with form but no melody and no words and I would put the whole song to that. On my new record, “Villanelle”, these are all lyrics that were sent to me by this poet B.D. Love and they’re in poem forms, forms I would never write in, so I’m trying to stay very true to the poetic forms and still make them sound like songs. Pete will sometimes write music first and sometimes lyrics, so we mix it all up. We try to not fall into a formula.

Allan – And what will the future bring? Next year four albums?

Maura – That’s a good question. We never know but we’re always really open and we always try and go with the flow. If you had asked us that question twelve months ago we wouldn’t have known we had three albums coming out; that came together in the last nine or ten months. So we don’t know but I’m sure it’ll be fun.

Allan – One last question. Do you have a song that makes you cry?

Maura – I’ve cried a lot singing songs. “When I Go” by Dave Carter is one of them. They change all the time. “I’ll Come Over” is a good example; that’s a song to my best friend and if I know somebody’s having trouble, I’ll dedicate it to them. I’ll start singing it and I’ll start crying; songs like that I can’t even talk about. And unfortunately, that was all we had time for before Pete and Maura had to get ready to go out and do their thing.

“West” and “Villanelle” are out now and “The Heart of Gotham” is out in June.

We reviewed Bob Malone’s excellent “Mojo EP” earlier this year and a couple of months later we sent Allan out to the badlands of Southend-on-Sea to see the final show of Bob’s UK tour. We were so impressed that we asked Bob to contribute to this feature. Here’s Bob’s festive favourite five:

‘Tis the season, and all that sort of thing; I can’t lie -- I get radically sentimental about the holidays. For most of the year, I bash pianos, sing songs of alienation and heartbreak, and knock out one-nighters like the road warrior that I am, but come Christmakuh, don’t come around here looking for any of that action -- I’ll be busy baking cookies, bitchez! These five records mean a lot to me, and they are what I think of when I think of this time of year.

Vince Guaraldi Trio“A Charlie Brown Christmas” -- Vince Guaraldi Trio Vince was one of the great jazz pianists, with a magical, melodic, understated style all his own. This music is the perfect companion to what was probably most perfect Christmas TV special ever made. You’ll smile, you’ll reflect quietly, you get a little melancholy, and you will dig that swinging rhythm section every year for the rest of your life. Oh, and I have this record on green vinyl -- you know you want one. Timeless.

 

 

The Spirit of Christmas“The Spirit Of Christmas” -- Ray Charles This record is so good, you don’t even have to wait for the holidays to put it on. Crazy hip arrangements, and Ray singing his ass off and playing a sweet, sweet Fender Rhodes throughout. He even manages to make “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” sound badass. There will never be another Brother Ray, so bow down and dig. I should note, however, that this record has the widest bad-album-cover-to-great-music spread ratio ever. A book definitely not to be judged by its cover.

 

A Very Special Christmas“A Very Special Christmas” -- Various Artists This mid 80s collection sold gazillions and is full of great tracks -- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band doing the great Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” (way cool, but not as good as the 1977 bootleg of Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” which just can’t be touched -- I’m from New Jersey -- this shit is IMPORTANT!), Chrissie Hynde’s snow-meltingly sexy version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and Madonna totally nailing “Santa Baby” -- and I frigging HATE Madonna -- but credit where credit is due. Most importantly, though, it’s got Run -- D.M.C. doing “Christmas In Hollis” -- which just might possibly be the greatest thing ever… “It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens, mom’s cookin’ chicken and collard greens…”   Yes, Indeed. Oh and speaking of Charles Brown, everyone needs to own “A Very Special Christmas II” just for the recording of his duet with Bonnie Raitt on the aforementioned “Merry Christmas Baby.” It’s the kind of thing Top-5 lists were made for.

 

Baroque masterworks“Baroque Masterworks for The Festive Season” -- Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Betcha didn’t see this one coming! Before I discovered rock and roll and the blues, and Return to Forever, and the New Orleans piano professors, and “The Chronic” -- I was an 11-year-old classical piano prodigy and this was one of the first records I ever bought with my own money. It’s got the Pachelbel Canon, and the Torelli Christmas Concerto on it. Just get it. It’ll make you weep.

 

 

Mary chapin carpenter“Come Darkness, Come Light” -- 12 Songs Of Christmas” -- Mary Chapin Carpenter A dozen original Christmas tunes by one of our great songwriters -- not the normal celebratory, sentimental, or breezy types of things you hear this time of year, they are instead reflective and realistic. When you have that seasonal melancholy, and you need to dig deep -- this is the one you need to hear.