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In an amphitheater in a Bridgeton, N.J., park, a few days before the solstice, a crowd is fidgeting through the midday swelter as Northern Virginia folk-pop duo the Kennedys finish up their set. Maura pulls a favorite trick, emulating a bass with her Takamine guitar by popping the low-E string. As Pete moves himself and his orange Gretsch downstage until he’s out in the elements with the common folk, Mother Nature finally does what she’s been threatening all day: turns on the shower heads.
Immediately, the festival-savvy crowd shifts into waterproof mode: Umbrellas swing up, tarps unfurl, and inhibitions lift. And Pete and Maura shift into a Beatles tune. The crowd is soon singing along: “Rai-ai-ai-aiaiaiai-ainnnn/I don’t mind.”
Later, under the merchandise tent, a dripping but chipper Maura, clad in a multicolored circa-1970 polyester romper, confides that it’s rained at nearly all of the last 10 or 12 festivals the Kennedys have played. “But don’t let that get around,” she laughs. “We’ll lose bookings!”
Despite their knack for rainmaking, the Kennedys haven’t been hurting for work. Pete, a native Arlingtonian, has been around Washington almost as long as the unrelated political dynasty that shares his name. From their days working in Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra through their ascendance on the acoustic circuit, he and wife Maura have built a career out of being musical magpies, adapting to whatever crosses their paths.
Their new album, Positively Live!, is a product of circumstance, “a record that could have come out any time in the course of our career,” according to Maura. “We decided to do it now [that] the window of opportunity is there, because we were on Green Linnet for our first two records, and…on Rounder for our second two, but we just parted ways with themamicably, of courseand so it was the perfect time for us to do the live album.”
The album is on the couple’s new Jiffyjam label, which Maura hopes will expand their recording possibilities: “Record labels in generalnot to dis them at all, but I think it’s easier for them to do their thing if it’s very clear what kind of music you do. Since we’re on our own record label, we don’t have to do that now.”
Coming on the heels of their 2000 album, Evolver, on which the duo delved into multilayered ’60s-style pop, Positively Live! could be seen as, well, retro for the two-person, two-guitar Kennedys. Pete, shaking the raindrops off his mod Chevy Chevelle Super Sport vinyl jacket as we escape the elements in a motor-home dressing room, muses: “I think what we wanted to do [with Positively Live!] was continue evolvingno pun intendedin terms of the music itself and creative energy, but separate that from production. With Evolver, what we wanted to do was take the production as far as we could. But for the next album, we said, ‘Let’s strip everything away, just the two guitars and our voices, but keep the same level of creativity and the same level of energy.’ So it was a challenge in a different way, but definitely not a step backwards toward a more conservative approach.”
“People [would] come up to us after a show and say, ‘Which record is just like what you just did tonight?’” says Maura. “And we didn’t have one, because we were doing the whole studio thingwhich we love to do, and we’ll never stop doing it. But we thought it was time to do a live album. Also, when we play live, we go into long jams and stuff. People are always asking for that, too: ‘Where can I get Pete’s long solos?’”
To capture their live show, the Kennedys recorded shows at clubs in Syracuse, N.Y., Lansdowne, Pa., Moundridge, Kan., and Chestertown, Md. The diversity of locales is in keeping with a career that has seen the group tour throughout Europe with Griffith, sojourn in Dublin (the inspiration for much of 1995’s River of Fallen Stars), and make a pilgrimage to the Chelsea Embankment site in London where the cover of Richard Thompson’s 1983 album Hand of Kindness was photographed.
The duo comes with a ready-made road-trip mythology: They wrote a song together”kind of Buddy Holly, kind of Everly Brothers,” says Mauraat their brief first meeting in Austin, Texas. There, Maura (née Boudreau) was performing in nascent alt-country band the Delta Rays and “studying the Louvin Brothers, that real hard-core country, almost bluegrass,” and Pete was playing a solo date between gigs with Griffith. Later, when they decided to see each other again, Pete was in Telluride, Colo., with Griffith’s band and Maura was still in Austin, so they settled on a supposedly equidistant meeting point.
Thus, their first date was in Lubbock, Texasat Holly’s grave. (A cursory Internet investigation blows a hole in this anecdote: Lubbock is 499.2 miles from Austin but a whopping 737.6 miles from Telluride. But, hey, the poor kids didn’t have Mapquest in 1992.) In 1995, after completing their first album together and taking their marriage vows, they traveled to Woodstock, N.Y., and Las Vegas, visiting two wildly different pop-culture touchstones in one honeymoon.
The duo have a similarly syncretic approach to their music. After hearing their paisley-pop take on the Beatles in Bridgeton, I’m surprised when they cite, as their current musical fascination, gospelespecially the little-known Alabama singer Dorothy Love Coates.
“To me, she’s the founder of rock ‘n’ roll,” avows Pete. “Little Richard modeled himself after Dorothy Love Coates….We’ve been collecting really obscure live ’50s gospel performances, because singing reached a peak at that time that was amazing.”
Maura emulates the smooth and mellow tone of Sam Cooke singing “You Send Me” and then notes: “But you hear him singing gospel and it’s like grit and fire.”
“Last year, we were really into Miles Davis and John Coltrane about this time,” says Pete. “So it changes.”
For people who collect diverse influences, the Washington area is a good place to put down roots, says Pete: “It’s a tremendous melting pot. It’s like a crossroads in the desert, where different caravans meet up. It’s been like that since World War II, when people from all over the country started converging on D.C. to work for the federal government. So there’s been a tremendous melding of music, all kinds of music, from gospel and bluegrass to go-go and hardcore.
“I think the national media figures their plate is full in terms of the political scene in D.C. That’s enough to cover, so they don’t pay any attention at all to the music scene like they would in other places like Austin, which is known as a music town. But D.C. has a tremendous music scene, and types of music, like go-go, that come from D.C.” He reels off a list of the area’s music legends, from Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Patsy Cline to Danny Gatton, the celebrated ax man whom Pete counted as a mentor and a personal friend until Gatton’s 1994 suicide.
“When I moved from Austin to D.C., I wasn’t expecting much,” admits Maura. “In fact, I knew a lot of D.C. [musicians] who moved down to Austin.” She points to Annandale, Va., native Kelly Willis as an example. “So when I came up here I was really surprised at how big and diverse the music scene was. The whole roots scenethe scene that Pete was inthat was really big. There’s all kinds of folk, hardcore, bluegrassI had no idea.”
And yet the Kennedys don’t spend a lot of nonperforming time in their nominal hometown, Reston. “Our home is really our van,” Maura laughs. (In Bridgeton, it’s certainly the home for a lot of their apparel: When I last see them, they’re strolling toward the lake, Pete in a gold-toned Hawaiian shirt and shorts, Maura in a bias-cut hopsack dress with rainbow stripes.) And New York is as much a home to them as D.C., thanks to the presence of both Maura’s family in her native Syracuse and the state’s multiplicity of clubs and festivals for the acoustically inclined.
The couple even hit the New York festivals where they’re not on the bill. At the venerable Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, where they’ve performed three times officially and a couple more as drop-ins, they’ll be appearing this weekendnot onstage, but staffing a vintage-clothing booth.
“We’re on the New Jersey Turnpike a lot,” says Pete. “We could have a home in either place and still be active in both music scenes. [But] we could never extricate ourselves from the D.C. scene, ’cause it’s very rich.” Pamela Murray Winters