The Kennedys respond to pandemic with steady stream of livestreams

Maura and Pete Kennedy interview

MICHAEL J. STAHL

Maura and Pete Kennedy.

Throughout the quiet of the pandemic, when the doors of venues remain locked and outdoors events are few, spouses Maura and Pete Kennedy, who perform together as the captivating duo The Kennedys, have raised their voices in performances of more than 500 songs for a global audience through weekly live-streaming concerts.

For 46 weeks now, every Sunday at 2 p.m., they have displayed their charismatic warmth and unpretentious intelligence and showcased their gifts as storytellers. The shows offer crash courses on various musical genres or artists and display Maura’s spectacular and soulful singing and Pete’s dazzling guitar virtuosity.

Multi-instrumentalists known for their harmonies and blend of folk, rock, bluegrass, country and pop, The Kennedys have written uplifting, evocative original tunes, and have put their imprint on a broad range of covers. They sing about love, loss, trust, caretaking, the environment and social consciousness.

Their single “Heal You” addresses our ailing planet and was released in January 2020 to coincide with the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s appeal to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Kennedys add poetic depth to the subject of environmental activism, singing: “I want to see you there tomorrow and feel your breezes blow eternal off the mountain/I want your lakes and streams to sparkle/And feed the oceans and the fertile fields and foundations/I want to heal you now.” (Visit kennedysmusic.com.)

The anthemic “Be Silent No More” (see video below), from their 2018 album Safe Until Tomorrow, resonates now more than ever as an enthusiastic call to action.

“The operative word for us when we write lyrics is ‘compassion,’ ” said Pete Kennedy. “We do believe that music can heal and, as songwriters, we feel a responsibility to use the craft to lift spirits and encourage. There are certainly other schools of artistic thought, but that’s the one we practice.”

The cover of the Kennedys album, “Safe Until Tomorrow.”

Pete wrote and recorded the music track for “Heal You.” “I just let that instrumental track wash over me for a while, and the music felt like a healing force to me,” said Maura.

She had been thinking about Thunberg, she said, and “about the trouble our planet was in. ‘I want to heal you now’: That’s us talking to Mother Earth.”

The words of “Be Silent No More” were written by poet and lyricist B.D. Love.

“It’s a song of social justice and a call to participate,” said Maura. “I heard, inherent in that lyric, a kind of Mahalia Jackson treatment, and the music pretty much wrote itself from there. We played that song at the last New Bedford Folk Festival (in New Bedford, Mass.), and later the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (in Hillsdale, N.Y.) a year and a half ago, and Laura Love, the amazing songwriter/activist/singer/bassist, got up with us and added a jaw-dropping improvised old-school gospel vocal. So we asked her, along with the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, to sing on a newly recorded version of that song which will come out sometime soon.”

STEADILY STREAMING

Their livestream videos are free to watch, but they have been relying on optional tips. Visit kennedysmusic.com to access their tip jars (via Venmo PayPal, Zelle and snail mail), upcoming livestreams, a video archive and a list of all songs performed so far.

As with many artists, they have lost all their gigs due to the pandemic since March, but remain optimistic and grateful. “While we share the anxiety of the pandemic with everyone else, we are doing fine musically because of our wonderfully supportive and loyal viewing audience,” said Pete. “That has made up for losing about 150 shows that were on the books, and that many again that we cannot book for this year or until everyone is vaccinated. We just changed venues, so to speak.”

They featured many of their originals at first and then “once we got through most of those, we started doing the specialty shows,” said Maura. “We’ll have to write some new ones.”

MICHAEL J. STAHL

Maura and Pete Kennedy perform at the Outpost in the Burbs in 2018.

They have immersed themselves with learning new songs requested by their fans. “The shows started out as straight-up all-request shows,” said Maura. “Then we got the idea for focusing on specific artists or genres for specialty shows. You can find themed shows dedicated to Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, the Summer of Love, California country rock, Emmylou Harris, and our latest feat: a four-part miniseries dedicated to The Beatles.”

Pete added: “Doing all different songs every week requires hours of rehearsal for each show. That keeps us really busy.”

Their longest previous stretch without a live gig was a 10-day vacation. “But, as Pete says, this has not been a vacation for us, as we prepare for each show all week, from deciding on a theme, taking requests from our viewers, learning and practicing material so we can play the songs by heart, setting up all the technical and production stuff and letting people know about the shows,” said Maura. ” The behind-the-scenes work takes a lot more time than you would think, but we strive to make our shows look effortless!”

Their prep work has paid off. They show no strain or hesitation as they tell tales of the songs they sing.

CHANGE OF SCENERY

In May, they moved to Westchester County, N.Y. Pete said “it is certainly much quieter there than it was for the nearly 20 years that we lived in the East Village.”

They live with Maura’s sister and husband, close to a nursing facility where her father had been living before his recent death. “We were able to pay him many visits, through the window at first and in weekly 30-minute inside visits later, with ongoing proof of negative COVID-19 tests,” said Maura. “Sadly, we lost him in mid-November, but we saw him much more often than when we were living in the city, which was one of the main reasons we moved.”

HUB WILSON

Pete and Maura Kennedy.

They did their best to break social isolation for him by connecting him to their Sunday livestreams. “Dad’s nurses always held an iPad for him to watch every Sunday, so he and his nurses got lots of shout-outs, not only from us, but from those in the chat room,” said Maura. “He was beloved and he’s so dearly missed.

“I’m grateful that we have this small, consistent and safe family bubble now, especially after losing Dad. And it’s great to have a big kitchen, which we did not have in our NYC studio apartment … lots of communal dinners.”

Their Emmylou Harris-themed show during the Thanksgiving season was dedicated to Maura’s dad, who was a country music fan. In it, she told a touching story of her dad asking a nurse in his skilled nursing facility to play classic country, and dedicated the song “Safe Until Tomorrow” (see below) to healthcare workers.

Each livestream represents a lesson about the genre and songwriters featured. At times, the two speak about the historical significance of the songs, how they resonate now, and more. For example, during the Beatles shows, we learn about the group’s progressively complex songwriting.

“Safe Until Tomorrow” — their theme song, used to close out each show — resonates throughout the pandemic and during these turbulent political times. Though the song was released in 2018, the words seem perfectly relevant to this past year.

Maura sings:

You watched the fire burn on the hillside
Thought you were safe until the flames were at your door
And later on, the bitter rains brought on a landslide
So hard, to fight a foe you’ve never seen before
If we can only keep you safe until tomorrow
I promise you there’ll be 10,000 better days.

CINDY STAGOFF

Maura Kennedy with Richard Barone, left, with Marshall Crenshaw at Central Park SummerStage in 2018.

One of the last times I heard them perform live, nestled in the corner of Hoboken’s Guitar Bar Jr., Pete introduced their beautiful song “Half a Million Miles,” from their 2005 album of the same name, by describing his first date with Maura in 1992 at the grave of Buddy Holly in Lubbock, Texas. They both drove 500 miles, coming from different locations for the date.

Due to the pandemic, they have not ventured that far for a date recently. “During COVID-19, a date means driving upstate to hike, bike or camp,” said Pete. “Before COVID-19, we would look for a cozy restaurant in NYC. If you live in the city, you don’t have to go far to find something interesting to do.”

They first met when Pete was playing guitar in Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. When Maura replaced Iris DeMent as a harmony singer on a Griffith tour, they found themselves in the same band, and opened shows for Griffith as a duo.

They released their first album as a duo in 1995, and their work remains fresh and relevant. They are writing and recording new songs now, so, “yes, there will be a Kennedys CD of original material this year,” said Pete. He also mentioned that Maura is nearly finished with a follow-up to her album Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love, and that he is about to release a solo instrumental album titled Electric Sitar Meditations.

A SILVER LINING

When the Kennedys tour, no spouse gets left behind for long stretches, as is the case for many performers. “We have gone to lots of interesting locations, so if we are playing in the Southwest or over in Europe, we are working but we get some of the excitement that we would get on vacation,” said Pete.

They have a committed and connected fan base at live shows. Their weekly streams have re-created this community, but have also reached a global audience. That is a silver lining during this time of grieving and loss.

“We see many of the same people from week to week at our livestreams, and we remember many of those are folks from our live gigs gone by, only now we know their names and their faces from their YouTube and Facebook icons,” said Maura. “Every week, for 46 weeks so far, we’ve received requests, comments and livestream chat interactions from scores of our regulars, and they feel like family to us now … we all know each other. And we’ve seen friendships born and blossom in the chat rooms during our shows. In such a time of isolation, it makes us feel so good to be the platform for such friendships to grow.”

I asked them about the musical influences represented in their themed livestreams. “Certainly, the Beatles and the Byrds, also Dylan, the ‘Fairport Convention alumni’ … music that combines good melodies with really crafted and substantial lyrics,” said Pete. “Our viewers are seeing and hearing us ‘up close’ on screen, so we are looking to do songs with depth.”

Maura added: “I’ve really been enjoying digging deeper into classic catalogs. We get requests every day from listeners for songs we don’t know, and that will send us down rabbit holes that, when we emerge, have resulted in the broadening of our repertoire. We’ve played so many of these newly discovered songs on our show. It’s made us better musicians.

“Some of the requests that have come in for our shows — songs we’d never played before — have pleasantly surprised us. I have found many of these songs to be so fitting to my voice and to our guitar styles.”

Songs she cited as examples included “Carrie Anne,” “On a Carousel” and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies; “Don’t Worry Baby” by The Beach Boys; “Full Circle” by The Byrds; “Georgy Girl” and “I’ll Never Find Another You” by The Seekers; “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang; “Return of the Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons; and the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell duets, “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

“I could go on,” she said. “These weekly shows have brought so much to our repertoire, both song- and style-wise.”

The cover of Nanci Griffith’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms” album.

WITH NANCI GRIFFITH

I first heard Nanci Griffith sing and play when I rocked one of my babies to sleep in 1996 to Griffith’s rendition of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide” (see video below), a song about aging that resonates now more than ever as I watch my son grow into a 24-year-old man and I am old enough to have grandchildren.

“ ‘Across the Great Divide’ certainly resonates with me, because I learned it directly from Kate Wolf when I was backing her in the early 1980s,” said Pete. “Later it became the anchor song of Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, a project in which I was deeply involved, including playing that little solo that opens the album, and now Maura and I still perform it when the moment calls for it. It’s about aging and memory, and those are relevant topics of rumination for us and our audience.”

Griffith, he said, “gave us our very first opportunities to play onstage as a duo, and she generously presented us to her global audience. We always acknowledge our debt to Nanci.”

Maura added: “I’ve been amazed at the generosity of many well-established musicians who have invited us to sing and play with them along the way. I’m thinking specifically of some of the times I’ve actually shared a microphone with Emmylou Harris, Al Stewart, Debbie Harry, Ben E. King, Marshall Crenshaw, Rosanne Cash, Odetta, Peter Asher, The Bangles, Donovan, John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur … I mean … can you imagine? How lucky am I?”

POSITIVE THOUGHTS

I asked them what else, besides the livestreams, they’d like their audiences to be tuned into in the next few months. Maura responded, “Vaccines! With continued masking and social distancing! Seriously … if we ever want to gather at coffeehouses and festivals … indeed, if we ever want to hug our friends again … we need to beat this pandemic, and that means all of us working as one.”

Maura said she is hopeful about the country, since “we’ve already seen our new President Biden following through on many of his campaign promises in his first week. He’s addressing issues that affect all of us, Democrats and Republicans alike: the health of the planet, beating the pandemic, addressing the rampant racism in our society, and getting people back to work. These are issues that will benefit everyone. As President Biden said, he will be the president for everyone, not just for those who voted for him. How refreshing.”

The Kennedys will take a moment to acknowledge our collective loss on the next edition of their livestream, Jan. 31 at 2 p.m. The episode is titled “Songs of Healing and Renewal” and, as stated on social media, it will focus on hopeful songs “now that the year has turned and vaccine distribution has been ramping up.”

The livestream can be seen on YouTube.com. Also on YouTube, there is an archive of past livestreams, here. For more on the the duo, visit kennedysmusic.com.

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