The Kennedys…Used to Like ’em, Now I Love ’em
One day in 2006 or thereabouts when I was still living in Southern California, I found myself in Hollywood at Amoeba Records in a position I often took when I visited there: laying down flat on my stomach, with the cool and dirty concrete floor beneath me. At the west end of the store where they had about twenty-five linear feet of grey wood shelving with the sign above simply saying ‘Folk’, I would spend an hour or more combing through the bargain CDs. Up on top they have the new and used mixed together, alphabetized and neatly arranged with divider cards, but on the bottom is where the treasures can be found.
In order to keep the main bins on the top easy to browse through, they would always be cleaning house with the used product by pulling it out, tagging it for ninety-nine cents, or maybe a little more for some, and putting it down beneath the bins for flippers like me. Although I’m all-digital now, those of us of a certain age know the thrill and art of flipping at the record store, along with the pure adreneline excitement of discovery. It’s in our DNA.
Yeah…I Spotify and read blogs for stuff now. Trust me…ain’t the same.
So on that day, I came across a promo copy from what appeared to be a fairly new release by a husband and wife duo named The Kennedys. Name seemed familiar, but maybe not. The album was called Songs for The Open Road and it caught my eye not only because of the striking cover art, but because it had a bunch of cover songs on it. Or maybe they all were. I’m a cover song collector. My eyes scanned down the track list; I stopped at “Sin City”.
Alright, first catch of the day.
Back to flipping and there’s another one called Evolver. And then yet another, Half A Million Miles. Three Kennedy’s for three bucks, and even though I knew these poor kids weren’t going to see a dime profit from my investment, I had the gut feeling that I just hit the lottery without even hearing a note.
That day was rather fruitful I recall, as I walked out with probably twenty five new discs. But I remember that it was Songs for The Open Road that slid into the disc player first for the three hour, freeway crunching ride home. And out of my speakers came music that felt comfortable and familiar, and not only because of recognizable songs, but because the voices, notes and chords were arranged in a pattern that aligned with the frequency of my inner-soundtrack.
If that sounds too new age-y for you, let me put it another way.
At a music industry event that I helped plan and MC’d back in 1990, Richard Thompson was scheduled on a bill with Dread Zepplin, the reggae Led Zep cover band with the Elvis impersonator as front man, and MC Hammer. Everybody seemed to have an entourage except Richard. He came in alone with his guitar, said he didn’t need a sound check and just sort of stood in the corner. Right before it was time for me to bring him out, I took the moment to say how important Fairport Convention was to me, and that I had seen them back in the Liege and Lief and Full House days. He smiled slightly, turned, looked right at me and said “Ah…so you’re one of those”.
To the point: Pete and Maura Kennedy….they’re one of those too.
If you cruise the interwebs, make it past JFK and Jackie, and find their story, it goes something like this: He is from the DC area; a hot shot gunslinger guitarist gear head who joined the musicians union in the early seventies, the same day as Emmylou Harris right before she took off for California. He supported Mary Chapin Carpenter on the road, and then Nanci Griffith. She is from Syracuse, comes from a large family and the most important thing you need to know about her is that Maura had the Ramones autograph her social security card at the Little Gem Diner. They met in Texas, had their first date at Buddy Holly’s gravesite, went on the road with Nanci and were both the opening act and have been longtime members of her band. Maura took over Iris DeMent’s spot as backup and harmony singer.
Flash forward to maybe eight weeks ago, and here I am in New York and I meet Peter Shafran, who has a beautifully crafted and curated house concert series with his wife Paula. It’s called River Spirit Music , in the lovely town of Hastings-On-Hudson. We get to talking, he tells me about some of the past shows he’s done, new shows he’s putting on and as if I’m in a cartoon where the character gets hit in the head with a frying pan, I hear “and the Kennedys…but we’re sold out”. Fortunately I came out of my coma just as I heard him say “but I’ll put you on the waiting list”.
I waited. And then I got the call, the directions, the food thing, the invoice. Ok. Second house concert ever. The first one I was a performer, and my bass player got drunk and forgot to show up. Stood up by the standup. Wine and cheese. I don’t drink, nor eat cheese. But it was fun. I liked it.
But this one, this River Spirit thing…much, much better. Beautiful home, great pot luck food, Diet Coke, Pete Kennedy edging me out for the shrimp or crudités at the buffet table, asking everyone he sees ‘got a request?’ and I give him four. Living room is set up with folding chairs, couches filled quickly, some kids downstairs playing video games and ignoring the ruckus up above, an imaginary grey wolf I thought I saw sitting on the front steps of Peter and Paula’s house as I pulled up that ran away, and some friends.
I’ve already rubbed elbows with Pete Kennedy, but now they come into the room and that Maura…a beautiful woman with a powerful presence. They start playing with their not-100%-quite-matching red Gretsch’s…folkies playin’ folk music on electrics is just so radical…and she’s got this incredible and huge voice, a great touch playing rhythm guitar that only comes from playing long hours and hard work on the road, and Pete is there harmonizing, noodling, smiling and I realize I’m looking at the luckiest man in the world. From a story by Michael Devlin, “When asked about the pressures of living, working and constantly traveling with one’s spouse, they will tell you that they are blessed to be able to do the thing they love without being separated from the person they love.” It’s been an emotional week and that almost brings me to tears.
So they hit every request that’s thrown at them out of the park, Pete dazzles with a raging “Rhapsody in Blue” on uke, Maura’s stories and song intros are riveting, they break for a few minutes to catch their breath and sell some CD’s. There are at least twelve as a duo, Pete has maybe ten, the kids album, Maura has one solo and then there is the Strangelings, their group thing with Chris and Meredith Thompson that resulted in a 2007 DVD and CD. Standing in the kitchen, Maura tells me it’s out of print, but I download it for $8.99 from Amazon while we chat and when I tell her the out of print CD is selling online for $115, she says it might be time for another pressing.
Before this becomes a book, let me say that an evening with The Kennedys is like getting a new puppy while eating your favorite fruit pie a la mode and gaining zero weight. After all these years, seeing them perform fulfilled one of my “top ten bands I’ve missed and wished I hadn’t” moments, and I was and remain enchanted. If you read about them (there are five articles in the No Depression archives, beginning with Issue #4 to start you off) you’ll get the whole thing about their love of Fairport, Byrds, Dylan, Beatles, Dave Carter, jingle jangle guitars, vintage clothes, Nanci Griffith and this folk circuit thingamajig. This couple is in motion. They tour all over, they never seem to stop. There’s solo albums, producing, side projects, video stuff, local gigs. They are a hard working, creative tsunami. Find them, see them, talk to them.
The other day I saw a picture of Maura standing in front of Sandy Denny’s home. I imagined Richard Thompson walking down the street, looking up at her, smiling and saying “Ah…so you’re one of those”.
Here’s some more music, including “I’ll Come Over” from their latest album Closer Than You Know. They have been very gracious with allowing me to choose the music and letting me embed whatever I felt I wanted to share. This player has 13 tunes, so scroll and roll it.
If you want to purchase The Kennedys music, and by now who wouldn’t: just click here.
If you want to see The Kennedys, here is their link to their shows all throughout the planet: just click here.
The home page of The Kennedys website: just click here.