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’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.
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’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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 here’s the latest offering from The Kennedys and it’s a live one, whichever way you look at it. It’s another symptom of the ways things are moving in the world of music today that more and more bands are releasing live CDs. It’s so easy to do now that it’s become another part of the tour mechandise package but it can still be something special, immortalising a unique performance in the way that certain live vinyl double albums did in the 70s. “Dance a Little Closer” is one of those albums.
Pete and Maura Kennedy have a long-standing professional relationship and friendship with country singer Nanci Griffith, who brought them together on stage in 1993 as members of her Blue Moon Orchestra and the “Dance a Little Closer” tour was a tribute to Nanci and her songs. The Kennedys took a selection from Nanci’s huge body of work and created arrangements for two voices and two guitars, proving that a great song is great song whether backed by a band or single guitar. “Dance a Little Closer” was recorded towards the end of the American leg of the tour at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York in April 2014.
The pacing of the album is perfect; after the mid-tempo opener, “I Wish it Would Rain”, the slower songs like “Late Night Grande Hotel” and “From a Distance” are mixed up with the medium tempo “Across the Great Divide” and “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, and the faster, driving, “Love Wore a Halo” and the album’s closer, “Hell No, (I’m Not Alright)”, co-written by Maura and Nanci. “Trouble in the Fields” was written in the 80s, comparing that time to the Great Depression, but seems equally valid in the second decade of the twenty-first century with Pete’s understated intro and solo emphasising Maura’s poignant vocals. “Lone Star State of Mind” is a nostalgic romp through good old Texas memories, while the wistful “There’s a Light Beyond these Woods” is a perfect evocation of a lasting childhood friendship. “Gulf Coast Highway” is another story of ordinary people getting by with some lovely vocal harmonies from Pete which give the chorus a very plaintive edge. “Ford Econoline” is a rockabilly (almost skiffle) run through the story of a housewife leaving everything behind her in Utah to take to the road and a singing career; you can almost hear Pete and Maura grinning at times.
The album’s title comes from a line in “Love at the Five and Dime”, a classic ˊlove conquers allˋ song where the main characters are musicians. Pete’s finger-picking and Maura’s vocal are reminiscent of the first Rickie Lee Jones album (always a plus for me), while the song reminds me slightly of Richard Stekol’s “Yank and Mary” as covered by Iain Matthews (an even bigger plus). It’s a beautiful song and a perfect rendition here. The instrumental and vocal performances throughout the album capture the mood of each song across a range of moods from melancholy through wistful to celebratory. All that with two guitars and two voices.
And then, there’s the songs. As Pete Kennedy’s sleeve notes tell us, these songs are a road map of America, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, but they’re also about real American people and issues and they have an impact which goes far beyond three minutes of music. The album’s a limited edition but there are still some copies available on The Kennedys website.
There’s a part of me that wants to always see The Kennedys (and a lot of other very talented artists) playing in small intimate venues like Green Note where the atmosphere is friendly, intimate and respectful and both performers and audience both have a good time. There’s a larger part which wonders why they aren’t playing to much bigger audiences and achieving wider recognition. I guess it’s about fashion rather than talent, but so many people are missing out on a wonderful music experience. It’s not about turning everything up to eleven and relying on lots of technology; you can get that at The Dublin Castle, and it’s closer to the Tube station. It’s about beautiful voices, gifted playing and a rapport between performers and audience.
This is the second time I’ve seen The Kennedys and this time they’re approaching the end of a tour celebrating the work of their good friend and collaborator, Nanci Griffith; Edwina Hayes is also there to add another guitar and another layer of harmony but before that, there’s the support band – The Kennedys, playing a set of their own material (all chosen by the audience) including “Breathe”, “Half a Million Miles”, “I’ll Come Over”, “9th Street Billy” and Pete’s awe-inspiring ukulele rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue”; I mean, Gershwin on a uke, what more could you want? As ever, Maura’s vocals are perfect with even a hint of Joni Mitchell that I’d never noticed before and Pete’s harmonies are spot on. It’s amazing the kind of stew you can cook up with two guitars and two voices, when you know the recipe.
For the Nanci Griffith set, Pete and Maura are joined by Edwina Hayes who helps to produce some stunning three-part harmonies which, at times, are hairs-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck good. Edwina has also toured with Nanci, who covered “Pour Me a Drink”, the title track of Edwina’s second album. The next hour passes in what seems like five minutes as the trio rattle through a set which includes “Pour Me a Drink” (of course), “Trouble in the Fields”, “Across the Great Divide”, “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, “From a Distance” and “There’s a Light Beyond the Woods (Mary Margaret)”. The three voices work perfectly together throughout the set and the audience is spellbound; no-one’s talking about their terrible journey of the Tube or checking their phone and I even feel a bit guilty about the noise of my camera shutter in a couple of the quieter moments. It’s a superb set from three gifted musicians who obviously love the songs they’re playing; I don’t think you can ask for anything more.
You can still see The Kennedys on Friday June 13 at The Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Saturday June 14 at The Grayshott Folk Club and Sunday June 15 at The Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham. You can also get Pete or Maura to sell you “Tone, Twang and Taste” (Pete’s solo instrumental CD) and “Dance a Little Closer”, a live recording from New York of the Nanci Griffith interpretations. Go out and see them; you’ll have a great time.
Very occasionally you go to a gig expecting to see a good show and you actually see a brilliant show; The Kennedys at Kings Place was one of those nights. The venue is in a fairly new building behind Kings Cross Station and all of the staff make a real effort to ensure that the audience have a good time; that’s important, but it’s a very small part of tonight’s story.
I feel really guilty that I only heard of The Kennedys for the first time a few weeks ago when they’ve been writing and playing great songs for so long. I reviewed the latest album “Closer than You Know” this week and it’s a great album which you should all have in your collection but, after tonight’s show, I think any true music fan should at least have a copy of their greatest hits package “Retrospective” in their collection as well.
The Kennedys live show is a perfect blend of musical talents; Pete is an incredibly good guitar player (more about that later) who also adds vocal harmonies to the mix while Maura is great country/folk/pop singer who is also a great rhythm guitar player, and that matters when it’s just two people, two guitars and two microphones up there. Truly exceptional songs are the ones which stand up when you tear away all the layers of studio production and there were an awful lot of songs standing proud at this show.
Apart from the musicianship, which is exceptional, there are a lot of things to admire about The Kennedys. They are very generous in their support for fellow songwriters, giving the audience some background (and usually a little anecdote) for most of their cover versions. They engage with the audience, both on and off stage, and each one allows the other space to shine. So, I’m guessing you might want to hear what they actually did.
The set started with a few old favourites featured on “Retrospective”, including “Life is Large”, “Breathe”, “Midnight Ghost” and “9th Street Billy”. Each of the songs is given a spoken introduction to help give it a context in the show and to help build a rapport between the performers and the audience and this, combined with The Kennedys willingness to play requests, gives the evening the feel of a house party hosted by some very talented friends. It certainly creates an intimate atmosphere.
The tour is partly in support of the recent (excellent) album, “Closer than You Know” and about half of the songs from the album are featured, including “Cradle to a Boat”, “I’ll Come Over”, “Marina Dream”, “Big Star Song” (thanks guys) and the U2 cover “Wild Honey”. All of these songs shine in their stripped-down live arrangements and stand up well in comparison with the songs they perform by other songwriters such as Nanci Griffith (“Trouble in the Fields”), Dave Carter (“When I Go”) and John Stewart (“Jasmine”). Pete and Maura are always generous in their praise for their fellow-writers and performers.
I might have mentioned that Pete is an incredibly good guitar player; his playing throughout is superb, but particularly during his solo instrumental pieces. Tonight he played a jazzy version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, a contemporary setting of the Bach piece “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (with harmonics and fret-tapping, no less) and a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played on an Ovation ukulele which left me speechless and, trust me, that doesn’t happen often.
So add in the traditional English balled “Matty Groves” and the obligatory “Eight Miles High” and that’s just about it for the two sets apart from the anthemic, and very timely plea for tolerance and diversity, “Stand”.
The Kennedys are very accomplished musicians who are completely comfortable with their performance and happy to mix with their audience during the intermission and after the show; they really deserve to be seen by a much wider audience. This tour continues until Thursday 06 June, so you still have a chance to check them out. You won’t regret it.