Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.
It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.
You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.
This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.
This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.
Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.
And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.
Here’s a contribution from someone I’ve met a few times in the last few years. Pete Kennedy is one half of The Kennedys, along with Maura Kennedy and they are two of the nicest people and finest songwriters I know. This year, Pete released “Heart of Gotham”, his masterpiece and labour of love which has been ten years in the making; it’s a huge Riot Squad favourite already. We asked him to contribute to High Fives for the second year and he’s kept to the spirit of “Heart of Gotham” with this wonderful piece.
These excursions all happen in my neighborhood, the East and West Village…I’m sure the museums further up town, and the goings-on in Brooklyn are great as well, but I’m sticking to my home turf. First of all, don’t go anywhere near Times Square, unless you want to pay ripoff prices at the same shops you already have on the High Street back home. You want to spend your hard earned pounds sterling on the music, food and atmosphere of the real New York, so follow me down below 14th Street.
Day One…Lunch at the Mud Cafe on 9th Street in the East Village, where you can sip local grounds while paging through a worn copy of Howl or On The Road. Don’t have any real books with you? Put that e-reader away, and let’s head down St. Mark’s Place to East Village Books. This tiny basement is that perfect Bohemian environment you pictured in your mind on the flight over…if you leave with a jones for more books, head over to The Strand, America’s greatest bookstore, on Broadway at 12th Street. Browse the outdoor stalls, a la the left bank, and throw a stack of 48 cent used books in your backpack. Dinner is at Rai Rai Ken, another tiny place, on 10th Street. It’s dark and rough hewn inside, and humid from the steam of huge pots of curry ramen. When your bowl arrives, just let the steam wash over you while it cools. Now it’s time for some music. The newest spot in this ‘hood is Treehouse, an intimate little stage three flights up, above Jesse Malin’s 7A and a new basement club, Berlin…
Day Two begins at Veselka, the 24 hour Ukrainian diner/deli where you can get your blintzes, bagels, bialys, and so forth. This is where I wrote the lyrics to the “Heart of Gotham” album, under the big mural of East Village writers. Then we head down 9th Street, stopping at Katinka to say hello to owners Jane and 9th Street Billy, paying silent homage at Jimi Hendrix’s basement flat, and shopping for vintage stuff at Fabulous Fannie’s, where Declan McManus is rumoured to sometimes stop by for a fresh pair of specs. The street is lined with small boutiques…one shop, recently closed, sold only candy and rain gear. For dinner, we go down the next block to Jules, for a salad Nicoise and live jazz with no cover charge. Then it’s a short hike up to the Hi Fi Club. The best juke box in town, the walls are lined with LP jackets, and the music is intimate and always good. Amy Rigby’s three week residency here has already passed into legend.
Day three starts out with Japanese breakfast at Panya, continuing our theme of haunting tiny places that tourists would never find. Pick up a packet of green tea biscuits for quick energy later in the day. Next we head up to the Union Square green market. This is where the city’s cutting edge chefs and foodies gather four days a week, and the perimeter is lined with artists, musicians, booksellers and chess players. Dinner? This will sound like heresy, but I’m going to say Whole Foods. The Indian buffet is by no means Brick Lane, but it’s serviceable, and the upstairs seating area has one of the best panoramic views in the city…Union Square, with the Empire State Building and other iconic structures looking like you could reach out and touch them. all for the price of a samosa. Now it’s music time, and we head down to the Bowery Electric for rockabilly and punk in the basement, or indie songwriters in the tiny Map Room upstairs. It’s at the corner known as Joey Ramone Place, and you can scoot a few doors down the block to mourn the passing of CBGB’s.
Day four begins in the West Village, with strong espresso at Cafe Reggio. The legendary template for all American coffeehouses, it features the first cappucino machine to emigrate here, and it is indeed imposing, resembling a navy cruiser dominating the small room. Reggio is featured in the film Shaft, when mobsters crash a car through the plate glass. No telling how many songs, poems and novels have been written on the semi-darkness of this place. Speaking of legends, we head up the block to Washington Square. In a way, there’s little need to pay a club cover charge for New York music, because it is happening here en pleine aire all the time. Folk jams, of course, but you will also hear classical pianists and cellists, rappers and poets, and everywhere the sound of Coltrane style sax in its natural element, the streets of New York. For dinner, let’s grab a quick burger at The Kettle of Fish, where someone will probably be playing Robert Johnson on an old Martin over in the corner. Music time…we’ll check out Le Poisson Rouge. Last show I saw there was a rare dbs reunion. Always something interesting going on here in Bleecker Street.
Day five, the last day of our excursion, begins at John’s Pizza in the West Village. Early for pizza? I forgot to mention that, in the Village, the day begins at noon. We will have to split a pizza, because following a deal hammered out long ago with Al Capone, there is no pizza by the slice at John’s, Lombardi’s, or Patsy’s, America’s original pizza joints. Apres pizza, we head across the street to Matt Umanov’s, the venerable guitar shop where every six string slinger you’ve ever hero-worshipped has bought at least one axe. After ogling the vintage Martins and Gibsons, we head around the corner to Carmine Street Guitars, where Rick Kelly caters to the working class guitarist, and specializes in building Telecasters out of hundred year old wood from demolished buildings in Brooklyn. You will want to take home a piece of twanging New York history. We’re getting peckish now, and the major bit of local cuisine that we haven’t sampled yet is pasta, preferably with a simple salad, cheap house wine, and a checkered tablecloth. That can all be taken care of right on the corner, at Trattoria Spaghetto. For our final night of music, we travel just one block to the Cornelia Street Cafe, where musical polymath David Amram has held court for years, with an eclectic mix of jazz, classical and folk combined with tales of his exploits with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Charlie Parker.
In the morning, we share a refreshing egg cream, which contains neither, at Gem Spa, the favorite deli of the Beats, and then, under the Keith Haring sculpture at the corner of St. Mark’s and The Bowery, we put you in a taxi headed for JFK, sated with music, food and the great vibes of our little neighborhood, Greenwich Village.
Let’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.
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.
The 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.
Dean 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.
Next 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.
Well 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…
“Villanelle” is the second instalment of a trilogy of albums released by Pete and Maura Kennedy in 2015. It’s a Maura Kennedy solo album but, not surprisingly, Pete’s a presence throughout, playing electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, organ, glockenspiel bass and drums. The album is a collaboration with Californian poet B.D. Love which was hatched in the summer of 2014 as a creative challenge. B.D. Love provided Maura with a set of poems which she had to be turn into songs without changing their structure. Now, that may sound like an interesting academic exercise but the project has produced some of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard this year by fusing poetic forms with a range of musical settings from across the Americana spectrum.
At fifteen songs long, I’m not even going to attempt to feature every song; there isn’t a bad, or even an average one, so I’m going with a few of my personal highlights, in no particular order. “She Worked her Magic on Me” is probably the most light-hearted of the lyrics; full of wordplay and double entendre, it’s a joyous romp of a song telling the tale of the amorous exploits of a magician’s assistant, featuring a nice gipsy jazz nylon-strung guitar solo from Pete. It’s not typical of the songs on the album, but it’s great fun. “Be the One” sounds like 1972 all over again with a groove that’s somewhere between Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain” and Steely Dan’s “Do it Again” as a backdrop for a relatively straightforward love poem. As a bonus, Pete builds up the texture and atmosphere with some very moody organ.
“Borrowed Dress” is a very feminist piece showing the human cost of economic migration and ending with a prayer that the daughter of the central character will live a better life because of her mother’s sacrifice. It’s heart-rending stuff set against an appropriately Mexican-tinged arrangement. “Darling Cutter” isn’t just heart-rending, it’s harrowing; the back-story is established quickly before plunging into a cycle of alienation and self-harm which the narrator can see and is trying to break, although there is a hint at complicity. The contrast between the lyrical darkness and the uptempo, almost jaunty, feel of the song helps to emphasise the pathos of the events which unfold.
If you ever need an example of perfect track sequencing on an album, here it is; the song following “Darling Cutter” is the absolutely gorgeous “I Cried to Dream Again”, which is inspired by Caliban’s famous dream speech in “The Tempest”. The theme of the song is an unrequited love, but the musical setting and the achingly beautiful chorus feel like a resolution to the previous song’s darkness.
There’s no argument here about whether song lyrics are poetry or not (and that’s a discussion I’ve had a few times) because that’s how these lyrics started. Maura Kennedy has risen to an incredibly difficult technical challenge by crafting arrangements across a wide variety of styles which enhance the poetry and, as always, her lead and harmony vocals are perfect. When you add Pete Kennedy’s multi-instrumental skills to the mix, the result is an album that’s technically flawless and packed with feeling and emotion. You can’t ask for much more than that.
“Villanelle – The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love” is out now on Varèse Sarabande (302 067 339 8).
You can read the interview I did with Pete and Maura in London earlier this month here.
Just 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.
It’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:
Thurs 30 Glasgow Woodend Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club
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.
So that’s 2014 well and truly put to bed. We’ve had great fun telling you about an interesting and varied bunch of albums and gigs and we’ve even thrown in a few photos as well. I suppose you want to know what delicacies MusicRiot has lined up for you in 2015; well, we’re only five days in so far, but we’re starting to get an idea of some of the music we’re looking forward to this year. Just bear with me a second while I clean the fingerprints off this crystal ball; I knew it was a mistake going for the touch-screen version.
Okay, a couple of predictions to start with. Two very different bands that we love at Riot Towers, Stone Foundation and Federal Charm, are continuing their march towards world domination. Both bands are currently demoing new albums while taking every opportunity to play live as well. Stone Foundation, following the success of the album, “To Find the Spirit”, tours of the UK and Japan and heaps of radio play last year are taking their brand of small town soul to Europe this April with gigs in France, Germany and The Czech Republic. There’s a British tour as well, which will probably feature some of the material from the new album. Federal Charm, after a hectic year supporting the likes of Ian Hunter and Rich Robinson are focussing on studio life for a while but I guess we can look forward to hearing more from them live later in the year; they just seem to get better with every tour. Another of our old friends, Maura Kennedy, is working on a solo album this year as well, although we don’t know about release dates for that one yet. I suspect we also have a new Southside Johnny album this year as well.
As for albums which are definite releases for this year, we’re quite excited by a few of those as well. Our live favourites The Billy Walton Band have secured a deal for the release their album “Wish for What You Want” and that should be coming out in February. Drumfire Records have new releases in the spring from Dean Owens and Phil Burdett (who also has an acoustic album coming out this year. We reviewed Bob Malone’s “Mojo EP” as well as a gig last year and we’re really looking forward to the release of his “Mojo Deluxe” album, probably in April this year. And that’s before we even start on John’s picks for this year.
Keep an eye out here or like or Facebook page to keep up with all of our news this year.
Here’s another couple of people that we love here at MusicRiot; Pete and Maura Kennedy. They’re fabulously gifted songwriters, singers and players and they’re lovely people as well. They decided to share their thoughts on some of the more interesting venues they’ve played around the UK. Let the good times roll…
Stirrin’ it up North A Cajun crawfish fest in Cumbria? Hey la bas! This gig, in a tiny village hall tucked into the forest, features the intimate rapport of a classic folk club, but with the added boon of massive pots of Louisiana style gumbo. Last time we were there, the performers (that would be us) rolled up their sleeves and became Cajun sous chefs for the night. After we served up the gumbo, we took off our aprons, picked up our guitars, and sang. That’s not gonna happen at the Albert Hall…so laissez les bon temps roulez!
Hedingham Castle Back in the States, no one has a Norman castle in their back yard, but in East Anglia, anything is possible! At last report, the music program has been suspended here, but we trust that the banquet hall, which once rang with lutenists entertaining Hank VIII with his own greatest hit, Greensleeves, will once again host modern troubadours. We loved the candlelight, the banners and balconies, and the natural reverb echoing off those solid Norman stone walls.
Woodend Bowling and Tennis Club Anyone for tennis? This venue, in a nice Glasgow suburb, seemed like an unlikely spot for a concert, but it turned out to be great! While the tennis players volley and the lawn bowlers knock down pins outside, Glaswegian Americana fans pack the activity hall inside. It’s the kind of gig where, in the midst of your set of original songs, you will suddenly find yourself inspired to belt out a Johnny Cash medley, with the crowd singing along lustily in perfect Memphis accents…
London Irish Village, Chelsea Football Club Another venue that seems unlikely, by virtue of its location underneath the grandstands at the actual football stadium. You’re not obliged to play “We Are the Champions”, although you can if you wish! The pub also functions as a top flight photo gallery, with a stellar collection of rock prints. For pre-gig inspiration, check out the prints of the early Clash in Camden Lock, or the Small Faces, each member walking his own baby alligator on a leash…
The Kitchen Garden, King’s Heath, Birmingham Approaching King’s Heath, we expected a verdant bowery, with peaceful flocks grazing while shepherds piped soothing airs. Instead, we found a bustling and diverse neighborhood chock full of interesting shops, none the least of which is our very own venue, The Kitchen Garden. Need a rake, a bird bath, or perhaps a stone Buddha for the back garden? This is the only gig we know of that offers those essentials, along with live music. It’s a lovely urban oasis, and no doubt the spot where local bard W. Shakespeare would have hung out had he surfaced a few centuries later. Come for tea or coffee, surrounded by flora of all varieties, and stay for live music in an intimate setting quite unlike any other on the circuit.