Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Strumming in Southport


 This blog has been going for four years now, has evolved a great deal and has seen some amazing shows, albums, interviews, lyrics and - most crucially - some amazing musicians have graced its posts.

 One constant that has become almost a tradition and certainly one of my favourite things to do on here is writing up Kennedys concerts

 I realised the other night that I have now seen them five times in the just-over-three-years I have known them. Considering we live on different continents, I'd say that is a pretty cool achievement on both my and their parts.

 The last three of these five shows have been at the same wonderful venue - the Atkinson in Southport. The first two of these - in 2013 and 2014 - were tribute shows to Nanci Griffith, with whom both Pete and Maura Kennedy have worked on-off for over twenty years.

 In May 2015 I set off for my third Southport show. This time the Kennedys would be doing their own songs - from not one but two new albums. It promised to be a night to remember.

 Not only that, but Grateful Fred would be hosting and playing. Grateful Fred's collaboration with the Kennedys and Edwina Hayes in 2014 created a beautiful, colourful evening of noise and spirit and I was looking forward to seeing what they could magic up together this time.

 As if that wasn't enough, Liverpudlian songwriter Alun Parry would be playing a set. I wasn't familiar with Alun's material but Grateful Fred picks good acts so I was keen to hear what Alun had to offer.

 NB: The video clips in this post are not mine; they are from YouTube but are from the night. The guy filming was actually almost directly in front of me, so you're seeing pretty much exactly what I did, only without the irreplaceable magic of being there and feeling the energy crackling in the air.

 The photos were taken mainly by me with possibly a few by my mother (we were using the same camera). Use them as you like but please credit Elizabeth Gibson and a link back to this blog would be nice!

 The night began for me with a hug from the ever-lovely Maura Kennedy and a chat with Pete and with Colin of Grateful Fred's. Then Alun Parry took to the stage.

 His first two songs were upbeat - although both had bitter-sweet lyrics - and he encouraged the audience to join in which was fun and got the room nicely warmed up for the evening.

 Next he performed "Bring Love", a swinging, hopeful tune which has been stuck in my head since! Then came the song that I will remember most from his set and one of the stand-out tunes of the night: "I Want Rosa to Stay", a very moving discussion of immigration. 

 The blue lights and smoke machine fitted beautifully with this song and the whole ambiance was incredibly effective.

 He then performed "If Harry Don't Go", a smoky, catchy ditty about famous docker Harry Constable and the rousing "Union Hall".

 He finished with "a slow song, which I don't normally do," in the form of "Climb", a quiet but strong little song about getting through hard times. In my eyes, ending on it was certainly the right choice.

 Overall, I enjoyed Alun's set and am glad to have been introduced to his good, strong folk voice, diverse range of styles and subject matter and charming Liverpudlian patter. It was very pleasant re-listening to his songs for this write-up and I intend to explore more of his music.

 We were then treated to Grateful Fred's ukulele trio. The last time I saw Grateful Fred's band there was a more diverse range of instruments and so I was surprised and intrigued to see the ukes. I was keen to hear what the three would play and how they would work together.

 The result was startling and wonderful, for me. I had imagined three ukuleles together could produce a limited sound and musical landscape - and that landscape was sweet, pretty, summery. 

 What I heard from this trio was a stunning range of colours and timbres. While there were the sweet, pretty, summery tunes such as "Just A-Roaming Round" and "Lean on Me", there was also the blues-y "Enjoy the Ride" and the dark, 50s-esque "Say You Will Remember Me".

 However, the highlight of their set and again, one of the highlights of the whole evening, was their gorgeous rendition of Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby". 

 I'd probably heard the Cat Stevens version at some point in my youth as my parents are fans of his, but I didn't have it clearly in my memory and so this version was quite fresh for me. I loved it. 

 I'm so glad someone recorded it and put it on YouTube, so it is immortal. It was one of those performances where you just feel so privileged to be there because it is amazing and you know it will become - in your eyes at least - a classic. Even as I was listening I felt this.

 The three worked off one another beautifully: a great, husky lead vocal, nicely harmonising backing vocals and some top-class uke work including several amazing solos.

 I can't believe what I've discovered from YouTube: that it was a seven-song set. It seemed like less; the whole thing seemed to go by in a joyous blur of great music.

 We then had a brief break and I got to meet Alun and have the customary photo with the Kennedys. I must make a montage of the five I now have. Neither of them ever seems to change the tiniest bit!

 The Kennedys then jumped onto stage for their first set. The songs were all from their two new albums: West by the Kennedys and Villanelle by Maura Kennedy.

 They burst into the title track from West with their omnipresent dynamism and verve and fire. They are always a joy to listen to as well as to photograph - both the light and the dark love the Kennedys and their red guitars.

 I will review both albums as soon as possible but in the mean time let me tell you they are both brilliant. I mean it in the literal sense of the word: they both radiate lovliness and power.

 Villanelle is Maura's second solo album and is a collaboration with her poet/professor friend B.D. Love. They concocted a plan together: he would send her pieces of poetry and she would fit them to music. 

 The poems could be any style, not just music-friendly ballads, and Maura had to retain the original structure of the poem.

 Considering this strictness, it is truly amazing how effortless the songs sound. Beautiful and fluid. B.D. Love is a fabulous lyricist - I wasn't familiar with his work previously but hope to encounter more of it.

 Among my favourites performed tonight were "I Cried to Dream Again", based on the Shakespeare quote and "Mockingbird", one of those songs you're sure you must have heard before as it has such a classic, timeless folk beat and in which Maura's ever-gorgeous voice sounds exquisitely haunting.

 West is a celebration of the Kennedys' twentieth anniversary as a married couple and as a musical duo. It combines their established upbeat, hopeful folk-rock sound with a newer wild, raw Americana sound inspired by their trips Out West.

 As always they work perfectly and passionately together and each song is not just a song but an experience. It is a real honour and privilege to be present at a Kennedys concert; they perform every show as if it were their first and last.

 My favourites from West include Pete's message of hope and encouragement "Jubilee Time" and the jangly, chaotic and wonderful "Bodhisattva Blues".

 However, the very best and up with "Mockingbird" as the highlight of the Kennedys' performance was "Elegy", a truly beautiful and hard-hitting song. 

"Crimson and Clover on a hillside bright, I wonder where you are tonight." 

 It was only later that I found out it is an elegy for Dave Carter, who wrote "When I Go", a song of which the Kennedys do a heartbreakingly perfect cover. Suddenly "Elegy" made much more sense - there are many images reminiscent of those Dave Carter would create. 

 That being said, I think the ultimate beauty is that you wouldn't know for certain who it is about just from the song; it could be about anybody whom those words and images evoke for you. 

 It might not even be someone who's died, maybe just somebody you have lost if you stretch the sense of "elegy" a bit. I didn't hear that word the first time around and just heard it as a love song, one with real devotion behind it. 

 That, for me, is the power of this song; each person can attach their own meaning to it and make it poignant and personal to them.

 There was one song on West with which I was familiar before the creation of the album, and that is "The Queen of Hollywood High" by John Stewart, which was performed by Maura at a John Stewart tribute concert. 

 The YouTube video fast became one of my favourite things to watch. Maura is clearly so happy and proud and thankful to be singing this song and paying hommage to her friend and hero.

 So I was delighted to see that this song would be appearing on West and hoped against hope that it would feature in the concert. And it did! 

 I sat there drinking it in and thinking, this is a momentous occasion and I am here and I am so happy.

 It was also great to see Pete perform his evergreen "Rhapsody in Uke" and hear the story behind it again. It is so fascinating to see Pete in his own world, completely absorbed and creating such incredible music.

 The Kennedys then teamed up with Alun and the Uke Trio for a final rousing shindig. As with last time, all three acts worked off one another joyously and harmoniously. It was a great end to the night.

 I got home by train for midnight - although it sadly wasn't the Midnight Ghost. My head was full of songs from all three acts that I knew would become favourites. 

 I had aquired three albums - West, Villanelle and Pete's instrumental album Tone, Twang and Taste - and rest assured I will post reviews of all three.

 I cannot recommend the Kennedys enough - they never, ever disappoint. Or, if you live in the North of England, consider trying a Grateful Fred's night in Southport; the two I've been to have had great music and have been really good fun.

 Thanks for reading,

 Liz x

P.S. Check out my interview with The Kennedys!


  1. Hi Liz, thank you so much for a great review of a magical evening at Grateful Fred's. It's much appreciated. I hope you dont' mind but we've added your very kind words about the Grateful Fred Ukulele Trio to the website?

    Colin xx (Grateful Fred)

    1. Hi Colin,

      Thank you, I'm glad you liked the review. I'm very happy to be mentioned on your website!


  2. Thank you kindly Liz

    Pete (the one in the middle) GFUT

    1. Hi Pete,

      You're welcome, I'm glad you enjoyed it! You have a great voice.