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“Hello, I’m Michael Kelley,” says the singer, performing before an attentive audience of seven. “And this is my brother Tim. We’re the Kelley Girls.”
No one in the Gaithersburg Borders Books and Music cracks a smile at this peculiar introduction. And there are no chuckles when Michael tells shoppers that the duo’s next song will be “My Bottled Courage.” “Tim here has a drinking problem,” he says. “Here’s a song we wrote about it.”
“It’s a challenge playing in front of people who are browsing for books,” Michael admits weeks later.
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Putting a happy face on sad songs is no easy trick either, though the Kelley Girls give it a stab. Sarcastic wit surrounds the local folk group like chain mail, beginning with a name that seems to wink at folk music’s less-than-macho reputation. And seeing that the Girls’ songs occupy those dark emotional corners that incubate pain, the title of the band’s debut release, Everything’s Wonderful and Nothing Hurts, could be regarded as a flat-out lie.
“A lot of these songs are very bitter and sad love songs,” Michael says, explaining that most of the Kelley Girls’ material was written in the wake of two significant events: The end, for Michael, of a four-year relationship, and the breakup of the Kelley brothers’ former band, Frontier Theory. Describing his state of being at the time the Kelley Girls’ music was conceived, Michael laughs. “I was very pissed,” he says.
The Kelley Girls “technically” began two years ago, but the group didn’t take its act out of the living room until last year, when it began a series of “experimental concerts” at the District of Columbia Arts Center. The duo played unplugged in the most literal sense, and the sets themselves were public writing sessions in which the brothers would work out unfinished material. The shows must have come as a shock to fans of Frontier Theory, a band Michael bluntly describes as a “typical band in the ’80s, like the Connells or R.E.M. It was pre-Nirvana. We were guitar-driven.” But the brothers, Tim in particular, are no strangers to improvisation. The guitarist is such a blues fanatic that when Willie Dixon died, he put on a suit and flew to California to attend the funeral.
“We wanted to do something to keep our interest up,” Michael says of the Kelley Girls’ first shows. “After a while, when you have one Epiphone guitar and two vocals, it can get a little old. We wanted to do something that made us feel like we were a little bit on the edge. And I think it worked.”
The Kelley Girls play Oct. 27 at the District of Columbia Arts Center.