Pete Kennedy is best known as half of celebrated art-folk duo the Kennedys, and one of the world’s great guitarists. Much as he has Richard Thompson-class chops and taste, Kennedy is also a first-rate songwriter. His latest album, Heart of Gotham, is streaming at Spotify. Together with his wife Maura, the Kennedys are playing the album release show tonight at around 9 at Bowery Electric on a killer triplebill with cult favorite Americana songwriter Rebecca Turner opening the night at 7, then another brilliant husband-wife duo, Tracy Island playing the album release show for their new one War No More (see yesterday’s writeup). Cover is a ridiculously cheap $9.
Two things distinguish this album. First, it’s a true solo effort: Pete Kennedy plays all the instruments, drums included. Secondly, it’s a song cycle, sort of the rock equivalent of Russell Shorto‘s classic New York history, Island at the Center of the World. Much as the idea of celebrating the many ethnicities who’ve made this city such a gorgeous melting pot might seem daunting – and potentially mawkish, and painfully P.C. – Kennedy pulls it off. Lyrically, the album is rich with historical references: people, places and drama from across the centuries. Musically, the obvious influence is an iconic New Yorker, Lou Reed, although the songs also ring with the celtic-tinged flair of the king of the downtown New York anthem, Willie Nile. The album begins and ends in Union Square, “a soapbox where streets tell their story,” as Kennedy puts it.
Tue to its title, The Bells Rang is a feast of jangly rock textures, a shout-out to resilience and triumph in hardscrabble Harlem. Williamsburg Bridge, counterintuitively and aptly salutes the Hispanic and Jewish communities that still cling to their turf on the south side of the neighborhood even as it’s overrun with yuppies, overpriced prefab condos and curated locavore tweetopia boites. And while the title of Never Stopped Believin’ might leave you with an “ew, Journey!” grimace, the optimism of its road-warrior narrative channels both Willie Nile and Woody Guthrie.
Likewise, with its web of mandolins and almost bagpipe-like waves of guitar, Unbreakable triumphantly reflects on the generations of Irish artisans who built so much of this city. Rise Above leaves the New York milieu behind for more pensive, personal ground, then People Like Me brings that idea around, a powerful reminder of how artistic communities aren’t just essential to a great city: that’s where people find their soulmates.
Harken, with its luscious layers of twelve-string guitar, is part Byrds, part Buddy Holly. The bittersweetly shuffling Asphodel references the latter of those artists as well as the mythological Greek purgatory. Riot in Bushwick refers not to police brutality but to a raid on a rockabilly shindig; it’s a launching pad for Kennedy’s bottomless bag of vintage 50s riffs.
New York reaches for art-rock majesty in the same vein as the Church, Kennedy’s guitar atmospherics evoking Peter Koppes at his stratospheric best. The album hits a peak with its most majestic anthem, Gotham Serenade – it’s not the only place where Kennedy quotes from Richard Thompson’s Wall of Death.
If all this seems like it romanticizes this city, consider that the songs on the album date from the previous decade and possibly before: the current era’s never-ending brain drain, and the devastation of all sorts of communities in a blitzkrieg of gentrification, aren’t addressed here. So consider this a fond look back at a past that’s just a few years behind us, even if it seems like a millenium away…and also a measure of hope for better days ahead after the real estate bubble bursts.