It’s more than a mere impersonation. When Maura Kennedy sings a Nanci Griffith song, she not only sounds like Griffith, but seems, somehow, to actually become her. She’s got every little vocal tic, every facet of Griffith’s personality down pat.
Griffith had a big influence on Kennedy’s songwriting, and Kennedy has worked with Griffith for many years, on and off, as a backing vocalist, songwriting partner and producer. She doesn’t just know Griffith’s songs inside and out, but seems to have internalized them, and sings them with great warmth.
She and her husband Pete, who perform together as The Kennedys, released a tribute album, Dance a Little Closer: The Kennedys Sing the Songs of Nanci Griffith, earlier this year. And they played a set of Griffith-written songs — as well as songs that Griffith has recorded, such as John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide” and Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” — after a set of their own material at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair on Friday night. Maura strummed an acoustic guitar while singing; Pete played lead electric guitar, and occasionally sang backing vocals. It was more than a musical tribute, though, as they also shared stories of working with Griffith, on the road and in the studio. (Pete has an even longer association with her than Maura does, having first backed her, as a guitarist, 23 years ago).
They stuck mostly to Griffith’s best known material — sweet, homespun ballads such as “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)” and “Love at the Five and Diome” and raw storytelling rock songs such as “Ford Econoline” and the Jersey-set “Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War)” — though there also were, understandably, some lesser-known songs, co-written by Griffith and Maura Kennedy, in the set, including the amusingly defiant “Hell No (I’m Not Alright)” and “Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dickey Chappelle),” about a groundbreaking female photojournalist.
While Maura dominated the second half of the show, for obvious reasons, Pete had more of an opportunity to showcase his dazzling virtuosity in the first half, particularly on two songs from his recent, all-instrumental CD, Tone, Twang, and Taste: the Jerry Reed-written instrumental, “The Mad Russian,” and a solo ukulele version of “Rhapsody in Blue” (yes, you read that right, and yes, he somehow found a way to make it work).
There’s lots of other good stuff coming up at the Outpost in the Burbs. Most shows take place at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, at 67 Church St. Here’s a schedule, and for more information, click here.
Nov. 14: Brother Sun, The Chapin Sisters.
Dec. 5: Peter Yarrow, “An Evening of Song and Conversation.”
Dec. 12: Joseph Arthur.
Jan. 10: Light of Day Benefit.
Jan. 16: Howie Day.
Feb. 7: Sixth annual Concert for Haiti
Feb. 13: Christian McBride Trio.
April 11: David Bromberg and Larry Campbell, Outpost benefit.
April 25: Roger McGuinn (at Mount Hebron School).
And here’s a video of “Across the Great Divide,” from Friday’s show: