We’re back from our summer recess with a new round of “Whatever Happened to…” and we kick off with a name that resonates loudly in American folk circles without registering a great deal of awareness on this side of the pond.
One of the fascinating things about researching for the ‘Whatever Happened to…’ series is that you never know what rabbit hole you’ll tumble down next! Remembering The Strangelings, and their interestingly weird take on folk-rock, I thought they might be a suitable subject for our series, without ever quite realising that the band was a combination of two popular American roots duos, The Kennedys and Chris and Meridith Thompson – and that started a whole different strand of research, once I started reading up on The Kennedys and realised what an interesting outfit they are.
Pete Kennedy was playing in the late Nanci Griffith’s band when he met Maura in Austin, Texas back in 1992. Rumour has it that they each drove 500 miles to meet at Buddy Holly’s grave in Lubbock for their first date! Maura Boudreau, as she was then, joined the Griffith band as a backing singer and the duo worked up a set of their own to become the opening act for Nanci Griffith on an Irish tour.
The Kennedys are a fascinating duo and it’s fair to say that they’ve not enjoyed a lot of appreciation in the UK, though they’re stalwarts of the folk circuit in America and are a well-rehearsed unit with a strong identity. They’re a real connection back to the old Greenwich Village Folk Scene and they’re keeping the intimate vibe of the small venue, coffee house folk scene very much alive through their concerts and performances.
Pete Kennedy originates from the suburbs of Washington D.C while Maura grew up in Syracuse New York and, while the duo originally based themselves in Austin, Texas, they were drawn steadily back north and east, spending a few years in the Washington DC area before finally ending up in the East Village in New York City, which seems to be their spiritual home. They became widely known in the U.S as the hosts of a radio programme called the Dharma Café and have regularly appeared on Broadway as part of the annual Theatre Within’s tribute to John Lennon, performing alongside other New York based artists such as Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper. They performed at both of Bill Clinton’s Presidential inaugurations. The Kennedys are still, very much, an active unit, touring and performing as much as possible and they’ve racked up some impressive mileage over the years, crisscrossing the country. The pandemic put a stop to their extensive touring but not to their performing, as they replaced live concerts with a weekly live-streamed show which they kept going throughout the lockdown periods in America, keeping interest going by introducing themed tribute shows to favorite musical influences including Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and The Beatles and then doing on-line shows dedicated to specific genres, such as California Country Rock, British Invasion, and a Motown special. Pete and Maura Kennedy are musicians in the troubadour tradition and there’s a refreshing earthiness and honesty about their stripped-down approach to American folk-rock that makes them a unit that more people should discover, especially on this side of the Atlantic.
Once you’ve got your head and ears around the music of The Kennedys, take a deep breath, put reality on hold and take a dive into the world of The Strangelings. This is another type of folk-rock entirely – trippy, hippy, ethereal and odd, it’s almost a 90-degree turn from the world of The Kennedys. Built largely around Pete Kennedy’s electric sitar playing they perform an eclectic mix of traditional songs and covers in a style that is reminiscent of the heyday of English folk-rock and bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, albeit with a nod to the Summer of Love and the Haight-Ashbury scene. The Strangelings is, basically, The Kennedys and folk-rock siblings, Chris and Meridith Thompson. The Thompsons are twin sisters who play folk-oriented material that is based around their superb harmonies and backed by their own guitar and flute playing. The four of them got together to form The Strangelings in late 2006, with the idea to create the core of a folk jam-band that other musicians could sit in with. They created a very specific stage image, very different from the way they present themselves in their duos and they quickly built a reputation for interesting and entertaining live performances, particularly on the festival circuit. The songs in their sets are presented as a suite with no breaks. At the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in 2007 Eric Lee, an 18-year-old fiddler, sat in with the band at two campsite performances; two days later he debuted as the band’s newest member, headlining the main stage. The lineup at this time was the Kennedys, the Thompsons, Ken Anderson on bass and Cheryl Prashker on occasional drums and percussion and the band was, originally, to be called The Changelings, to reflect their intention of a shifting line-up. It seems that all their activity took place in 2007 and it’s not known if the group are, in any way, still active or have plans to work together in the future, which is a shame as they produced some interesting music. I particularly liked their version of the old Donovan song, ‘Season of the Witch’, which was the title track of their only album to date, though there is also a DVD under the title of “The Nuah Suite”.
The Kennedys and The Strangelings are interesting additions to the Americana scene and it has been a pleasure to spend some time rooting around in their history, what I’ve been able to find of it. For those who have never come across them I’d urge you to check them out. The Kennedys have put out some 15 studio recordings since their 1995 debut album “River of Fallen Stars”, with the most recent being 2018’s “Safe Until Tomorrow”. They have also both released a number of solo albums. The Strangelings just has the one recording to their name, the aforementioned “Season of the Witch” but I live in hope that the constituent members might re-visit this project one day.
You can find out more about The Kennedys, and their various off-shoot projects, here.
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