imgID72704821.jpg.gallery[1]‘Well, I said hello to the spirit of 1956,

Who was stationed in the bushes next to ’57….’

Thus sang Jonathan Richman on one of the dozen best songs ever recorded, “Roadrunner”.

I encountered the same spirits on a soggy Thursday night in Leek. It’s not what you expect, really and I would have appreciated fair warning but there it is.

A modest but politely enthusiastic audience was more a reflection of the night rather than ‘the turn’. Leek, one of the highest towns in England – ‘Queen of the Moorlands’, baby – was sloshing about in the remains of the tropical storm which had brought a well-morphed spirit of the Caribbean many miles away from source. This exotic and fantastical weather ‘bomb’ was well named by the time it reached these climes.

Doris. Queen of the wet and windy.

So one for the hardy, very local or true believers.

First up, support from a local musician and leading light in the Leek Blues Fest – end of last week in September 2017 for those of you young enough to believe in the idea of forward planning – Mike Gledhill, an affable singer-songwriter who played an amiable bunch of self-penned songs, one of which he entertainingly claimed he wrote with J.J. Cale….”he just doesn’t know it yet…!” all of which amounted to a pleasant enough starter-upper.

John Lewis is, in his solo incarnation, a revelation from the second he hits the strings. Within the first four songs it is pretty obvious we’re in the presence of something a bit special here. His repertoire wanders with total comfort between 1956 rockabilly skeletons, Hank Williams-esque country painfests, straight-ahead four on the floor R’n’B – tinged rock ‘n’ roll that Chuck Berry made his own, and the prehistoric pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly. How does he manage this?

Well, for a start, this guy has A Voice. And it’s usually the voice which lets down a perfectly acceptable ‘Americana’ (hate the term – but bear with me) act, especially the blues. But this guy has got the whole thing going on. I find it incredible that one bloke’s voice can capture the essence of the pained ache of the aforementioned Hank Williams (done badly it just sounds like mawkish sentimentality – and John Lewis doesn’t appear to do mawkish sentimentality), the tremulous, vulnerable majesty of Roy Orbison, the mean, gritty swagger of some of the other Sun-era originals like Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers et al, and the popped-up sweetness of Buddy and yes, at one point, Elvis and of course, Johnny Cash. Not only that, he is positively expert on a range of guitars that look like they really ought to be nailed to the wall in a museum in Nashville or used as agricultural instruments.

Here is a man who is on top of his game, big style. You don’t have the likes of Imelda May helping out on his beautiful celebration of dadness, “Waltz Around the Kitchen”, or The Jets providing back-up on some of his recordings without knowing your chops. What I find similarly astonishing is the authenticity which having a ‘stamping board’ – which looks like a heavily-modified pallet – as your rhythm section. And to keep that going with metronome precision throughout a set which requires a variety of pace changes mid-song can’t be easy, not to mention physically exhausting.

What is it about the Welsh? Why do they produce such brilliant rock ‘n’ rollers? Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers; the much-maligned Shakin’ Stevens; Geraint Watkins; Ricky Valance (first Welshman to have a UK number 1 hit; ask your grandma.) Even Sir Thomas The Jones started out with beat-group derivatives of old-school r and r. And John Lewis sits fairly and squarely in the middle of this tradition. Already. And you feel there’s still plenty to come.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay an artist who features a number of ‘covers’ in their set is that the originals are not fillers you sit through politely before he chucks in a crackling, impatient “Help Me” or an incendiary “Baby Please Don’t Go”. By focussing on the fundamentals, family relationships (“Waltz”) paying the bills or not (“Money Troubles”) or social exclusion (“Not Quite the Not”) his own stuff sits in perfect context with a whole range of classics which span early skiffle, work songs, blues and country. Modern sensibilities, mark you; “Money Troubles” is a beaut, naming the beast in a direct and modern setting. I mean, if he was writing ‘baby left me and mah mule got lame, lost mah money in a poker game’ you’d wonder quite what the point was. So he doesn’t.

And that quite stunning voice enables him to interpret an old and well-worn song with vision and flexibility. I mean, “Always on My Mind” sung by Elvis always sounds to me like ‘I may not be perfect but regarding our relationship I’m always Elvis Presley.’ Sung by Willie Nelson, it sounds like ‘I’m nowhere near perfect but regarding our relationship, this is the about the best I can manage.’ Here is an interpreter of other people’s songs who thinks about what they mean to him, not just his own material, and that isn’t necessarily a given.

Note to self; go and see The Real John Lewis, as the microphone stand proclaims, as a trio and see how that changes the dynamic of things. I’d imagine that freed from having to be his own personalised rhythm section there’d be some real pyrotechnics then. And also, must go see him in an over-full, sweaty cave somewhere filled with the drunk and the raucous rather than the sparsely-populated but admittedly lovely high-ceilinged Victoriana of the Foxlowe Centre.

I stop mid-gush to voice two slight concerns. Firstly, regards old rockabilly and rock n roll, (I flatly refuse to use the term Americana as I hate it with a vengeance) virtually the entire world is looking in a direction away from the original source of music as we know it at the moment. How is this phenomenal talent to break out of the limitations of the genre? And secondly, what exactly IS the genre? And DON’T say Americana, I will not be held responsible for my actions. Sooner or later, a ‘breakthrough’ airplay track may well compel The Real John Lewis to define himself a little more precisely than his talent would probably feel comfortable with. At that point The Real John Lewis – or a version of – might be forced to stand up. (At which point the rhythm section will fall silent, ‘cos you can’t do the stomp rhythm thing unless you’re sitting down.)

But neither of these things are the artist’s problem and neither are they particularly within his control, either.

And the latter might be a nice problem to have. It would be no more or less than he deserves.

New acoustic album “His Other Side” comes out on February 26th, I’m told. Website www.therealjohnlewis.com

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.

West TitleIt’s great to see that after twenty years together, Pete and Maura Kennedy are celebrating by releasing three albums in 2015, following the live Nanci Griffith set and Pete’s solo instrumental album last year. I can’t think of a more compact, complete and self-sufficient creative partnership than Pete and Maura. As live performers, they both sing beautifully, with Maura generally leading while Pete supplies perfect harmonies. Instrumentally, Maura provides the rhythm guitar backdrop while Pete plays lead lines to complement the songs and occasionally gets the chance to demonstrate his mastery of guitar and several more (mainly) stringed instruments. They’re both fine songwriters together and individually who aren’t afraid to include songs by other writers with their own material. This might all sound a bit general, but all of this applies to the duo’s latest studio album, “West”.

The eponymous opener, “West”, is a mid-tempo country rock exploration of a theme which dates back to eighteenth century, moving west as voyage of discovery. It just happens to have the most insanely catchy one-word chorus you’re ever likely to hear. As openers go, a road song with the perfect chorus is a pretty good start. “Elegy”, the second song in, is a folk-tinged celebration of the work of American folk singer-songwriter Dave Carter featuring banjo, mandolin, and even dulcimer from Pete. “Sisters of the Road” is a celebration (that word again) of the female voice and the bond between the sisterhood of performers who criss-cross the USA (and the rest of the world) meeting up whenever their schedules happen to coincide. “Signs” has a very 60s psychedelic folk feel with some electric sitar from Pete and a lyric inspired by a week spent by Maura in the New England woods. The mid-tempo country feel of “Jubilee Time” features a lead vocal from Pete and the uplifting message that however bad things are , they can always get better: ‘And when you’re standing with your hat filled with rain, Just remember that we will meet again’. And this may just say more about my record collection than anything else, but it reminds me a lot of Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake”.

From the opening low-register guitar intro, it’s obvious that “Locket” is inspired by Buddy Holly. It’s musically very simple, and lyrically it’s built around a metaphor of a locket representing a heart; simple but hugely effective. It also alludes to the genesis of Pete and Maura’s relationship twenty years ago, but that’s another story. “Southern Jumbo” returns to a country style, pulling together the themes of a family get-together for cooking and singing and a love song to a guitar and, again, it works perfectly. “Black Snake, White Snake” is a supernatural story of two sister snakes (one bad, one good) based on a piece by poet B.D. Love (who has also been collaborating with Maura on an upcoming album) with Pete’s sitar adding a psychedelic sound which emphasises the sinister tone of the piece.

“Bodhisattva Blues” is a flat-picked country blues pulling together concepts from Eastern and western religions sung in two-part harmony throughout and it’s great acoustic fun, while “Travel Day Blues” moves firmly into electric twelve-bar blues territory combining the legend of the Comte de Saint Germain with a list of some of the distractions that help to pass the hours spent moving from gig to gig. There’s also a nod in the direction of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and proof that all Chuck’s children are still out there playing his licks. “The Queen of Hollywood High” is a tribute to a Kennedys favourite, the late John Stewart. It’s perfect West Coast pop and Pete and Maura are also helped out here by John’s former band members.

If you know anything about The Kennedys, you probably know that they are Byrds fans, so it should be no surprise that John Wicks of The Records wrote a song for (and about) them, “Perfect Love”, which they perform here. It’s a lovely song and works really well with Pete and Maura’s voices. And what better way to end the album with a twentieth anniversary love song from Pete to Maura with Everlys-style harmonies? “Good, Better, Best” isn’t a song about everything always being perfect, but about how the right person helps you deal with the inevitable bad times.

“West” is a gem of an album; thirteen varied and beautifully-crafted songs played and sung with taste and sensitivity by two very gifted people. There aren’t any instrumental or vocal pyrotechnics, just proper playing and singing; there isn’t anything here that isn’t absolutely necessary. Besides the themes of love, celebration and remembrance, there’s a bit of the supernatural and a light-hearted look at religious enlightenment and fulfilment; I haven’t heard a better album in a long time.

The album is self-released on May 13th 2015, but Pete and Maura will be happy to sell you a copy at any of the following tour dates in the UK:

April

Thurs 30 Glasgow                   Woodend Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club

May

Friday 1                                   Basingstoke, The Forge at The Anvil

Sunday 3                                 Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Café

Wednesday 6                          Southport, Grateful Fred’s at The Atkinson

Thursday 7                              Milton Keynes, The Stables

Friday 8                                   London, Kings Place

Saturday 9                              Leeds, Seven Arts

Sunday 10                               Haile, Cumbria Haile Village Hall.