Live From That Musical Utopia, Woodstock: Mr. Connor Kennedy
That’s two n’s in Kennedy, and two in Connor, too. Stop with the Conor, folks. He’s not R.F.K.’s grandson, or a guy who dated Taylor Swift. Connor Kennedy, guitar man, composer, soaking up music of all kinds and playing with grace and passion and his own particular style, a self-described “singing writer of songs,” is so much cooler than all that.
I first heard Kennedy at the Bearsville Theater in 2011, playing Pink Floyd with Scott Sharrad. Playing the living hell out of Pink Floyd. He was sixteen. Friends in the area already knew Kennedy well before the days of his rethinking of Pink; he’d been playing professionally in the area since he was barely in his teens. Last month, I caught up with him on the back porch of “Logstock,” the Woodstock home and studio Rob Ramirez and Joni Elenson so generously share with the many area musicians. Kennedy, together with his bandmates and Scott Petito, was finishing up the mixing of his new album Live In Utopia: Connor Kennedy & Minstrel, released April 17, on the eve of his first major tour, happening now – in support of The Waterboys and the Gipsy Kings.
One of the first things I ask him, though he looked alert and happy on a sunny weekday morning, is “Connor, when do you sleep?” He smiles beatifically. “It’s been difficult lately.”
Connor Kennedy & Minstrel are comprised of their frontman on lead vocals and guitar, Lee Falco on drums – “we've been playing together for five years,” says Kennedy – Brandon Morrison on bass, and Will Bryant on keyboards. “Will is Byron Isaacs’ nephew,” Kennedy explains. “He was here visiting from Austin.” Like so many musicians who stop by to pass the time in Woodstock, Bryant stayed. They recorded their album at the Utopia Soundstage in Bearsville, but wanted it to have a concert feel. “We’re treating it like a live album, keeping a lot of my blown vocals,” Kennedy laughs. “You have all these limitations, you have to accept it – that you’re capturing something, recording a moment in time that’ll never happen again.”
He gives his bandmates, and the way they play together, full credit for beating those limitations. “The thing about this band, we're a real band and have worked so hard. All my songs could be played on an acoustic guitar or piano, but when we four play together, yeah.” The quartet had just recorded a new song, “King of Kings,” in the days before. “I turned on the tv, not to watch anything, I needed to charge my phone in the port in the back. There was a movie on, Fellini, with women coming up trying to kill men, rolling them in carpets.” Kennedy got the idea in his head for “a heavy, electric blues stomp” that became a seven-minute song full of four-part harmonies. “It’s sort of like a suite.” He wrote all ten songs on the record, which was released April 17 at a festive, crowded BSP Kingston. The party went late; the vibe was both comfortably old, and wildly new. From the jingling joybells and hard rocking of "The Holy Grail" and its gritty lyrics ("You got my hand while your eyes are closed / You'll dive into the deep end, where all the sadness goes") to the drum-driven "Tied Up, Lied Down" to the lilting "We Still Have Time" (in which Kennedy delightfully rhymes, among many other excellent things, decision and carrier pigeon), there's not a bum song on the record. Kennedy's voice, sandpaper and silk, reminds me of Van Morrison's (with that early passion that fueled Them, as well as the slides and glides of Moondance days).
Minstrel in Palm Springs, California, May 2015
Flashback to the Woodstock Farm Festival on a hot summer’s day, not so long ago, when Kennedy was fourteen. He and some friends were playing under the little tent set up on Wednesday afternoons from May to October in the parking lot behind the south side of town, while townsfolk browsed the stands of vegetables, flowers, cheese and wine. Kennedy saw Amy Helm shopping, and said to the band, “Let’s play Atlantic City.” The Springsteen song was one that Amy’s father, Levon, and The Midnight Ramble Band, with the phenomenal Howard Johnson on penny whistle (joked Helm one night at a Ramble, “Howard can walk into a hardware store and play anything he finds there”), had made their own. Amy sings it now, at her father’s house. She stopped to listen, and told Kennedy, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Soon Connor would be playing shows with Amy, Simi Stone, Natalie Merchant, Kate Pierson, Elizabeth Mitchell – pace Joni Mitchell, the Ladies of the Valley.
The Hudson Valley from Newburgh to Annandale-On-Hudson on the east, and from New Paltz to Woodstock on the west, has long been musicians’ country. Dipping down to Tarrytown to pick up David Bromberg, which must be done, the area is currently home to the artists named in the previous paragraph, and to Happy Traum, John Sebastian, Josh Ritter, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Lindsey Webster, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Ruthy Ungar, Mike Merenda...and so many more. Regular visitors who are treated like family when they arrive in Bearsville or at Levon Helm’s “Barn,” the studio space in his home where concerts keep on keeping on, include former resident Steve Earle, Jackie Greene, Richard Thompson, Booker T. Jones, Phil Lesh, Moonalice, Kinky Friedman...and so many more. In this fertile and welcoming ground, young Connor found inspiration and support for his own music.
Kennedy began by doing covers, but chiefly performs his own songs these days. The covers were, for him, where all the ladders started. “I was playing other people’s music from the time I was sixteen. It’s fun in the moment, and everyone needs to do it. Everyone needs to start there. It’s almost like being a sideman – it’s a musical situation for yourself where you can have a good time,” as opposed to the exciting but fraught debuting of one’s own original tunes.
What influenced him, apart from the artists whose songs he grew up learning and playing? “Harry Potter, horror stuff – classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, H.G. Wells. When I started playing my own music, though, I got more into nonfiction.” He likes an “analysis of lyrical content. I’m obsessed with the meaning of lyrics and imagery.” Connor puts it beautifully – he has, and is trying to keep fostering in his own art, an “appreciation of veiled content.” “I mean, Pink Floyd never proclaimed their artistry. You had to listen to those words, try to figure what it means to you.”
Kennedy is delighted to have roots, and traditions, into which to set himself. “This whole culture of people my age and a little bit older, completely hellbent on making music different from anything that came before….” He shrugs. This is not for him. “You can waste a lot of time letting that get in the way.” Older artists in Woodstock – and that would be just about everybody, for the 20-year-old – have done nothing but help. In late 2014, Happy Traum invited Kennedy to play at the Solstice concert, an annual benefit he’s run for many years. “I showed up with an electric guitar at that,” Kennedy grins. He left with a promise from John Sebastian to let him play Rev. Gary Davis’s guitar, which Sebastian owns (this happened recently).
Of Woodstock, Kennedy says, “There’s so much going on quietly around here right now. It’s been coming on for the past few years. Levon’s place kickstarted, catalyzed things happening in music for a lot of people – [the Rambles] elevated everyone’s excitement about music.” What was it like for Kennedy to first come to The Barn, when he was just in his teens? “Working there, seeing what real musicians did….” He trails off into silence for a minute, and then smiles. “There was no way I was going to stop working – we have to live up to it.” At The Barn he encountered Donald Fagen, and says of Fagen and Steely Dan, “That’s just about the highest point for me, their whole body of work.”
Kennedy is very Woodstock indeed about all that’s going on for him right now. “Now that we’re gonna be traveling musicians for a month and a half, I just went and opened a bank account.” He grins. “Guess the IRS will be looking for me, too.”
What was he most looking forward to, on the current tour? “Playing to a different audience in all these amazing venues – and also seeing America. I’ve never been to most of these places. I’ve never been to Ottawa, and Montreal.” His Instagram feed is full of photographs of the places he’s playing, documenting with an artist’s eye the city streets and sights, and with a musician’s heart the pleasure he’s taking in hearing Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, Ralph Salmins, “Brother” Paul Brown, Zach Ernst, and David Hood (who agreed to decamp from Muscle Shoals and join The Waterboys on his first tour since the early 1970s) every night. Kennedy and Minstrel end their North American stint with The Waterboys on May 24, in Arvada, Colorado. Two days later, they join the Gipsy Kings in Anaheim. Then they get to go home, but I’d bet it won’t be for long.
As he travels, Kennedy keeps one foot in the Catskills. “I get pretty emotional thinking about it, really. It’s this area – this area has sent us out on this tour.” The Woodstock area has fostered Kennedy, and Minstrel, but as of the past month, they belong to audiences and new fans in L.A. and Portland, Atlanta and Toronto, Tucson and Austin, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh and Montreal, too. Welcome, Connor Kennedy, to a musician’s life, full-time and for permanently, with home and the road both as constants, now. Long may they endure, each succeeding the other from month to month, year to year, for you.
all photographs via connorkennedymusic.com and Connor Kennedy on Instagram. Portrait of Kennedy in the studio by @twospoonsphoto; John Sebastian, Connor Kennedy and Rev. Gary Davis's guitar by Martha Frankel.