Their music overflows the cubbyholes

Music: Forget easy categorizations. The eclectic husband-and-wife duo known as the Kennedys is just as likely to draw on the sounds of pop as folk in writing songs that they splash with literary allusions.

April 21, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Pete and Maura Kennedy's romance is the stuff of press release fantasy.

The folk-rock duo, simply known as the Kennedys, first locked eyes at a club where Pete was playing. For their first date, they rendezvoused at Buddy Holly's gravesite in Lubbock, Texas. Both rabid Beatles fans, they played their first gig together in a Liverpool club.

It was love at first strum.

In 1992, Maura, then Maura Boudreau, was in Austin, Texas, as bass player and vocalist for country pop group, the Delta Rays.

She was advised by a friend to check out a Pete Kennedy show at a local club. Pete was taking a break from his tour with folk singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith. Pete, who was an in-demand D.C.-area guitarist, has also played lead for country crossover queen Mary Chapin Carpenter and many others.

"I instantly connected with Pete's music," says Maura, a 35-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., native. Pete, 45, from Arlington, Va., calls it "instant chemistry."

The next day they wrote a song together, "Day In and Day Out," which appears on their first album, "River of Fallen Stars." Two years later, they got married. One year after that, they released their first album, the mellow, melodic "River," which was named best contemporary album of 1995 by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.

Return to folk

In 1996, they followed up with "Life is Large," an ambitious pop album featuring the talents of friends, from Nils Lofgren to the Byrds' Roger McGuinn. Their latest, "Angel Fire," returns them to a purer form of folk, and is full of playful allusions to literary figures from Dickinson to Rilke, which are reminiscent of other contemporary pop odes to wordsmiths like the Indigo Girls' "Virginia Woolf," and the Smiths' "Cemetery Gates."

Pete and Maura say they weren't influenced by those songs, but rather by the stacks of books they devoured the summer they recorded the album in their Reston, Va., home.

The Kennedys, who call their sound "Coffeehouse Pop," draw on everything from Indian ragas to classic folk. You can also hear traces of the roots music Pete was surrounded by as a young D.C. musician in the late '70s and early '80s.

Contrasting album covers hint at their musical versatility. The horizontally striped tights, grown-out Joan Jett haircuts (Maura, not Pete) and red electric guitars on "Life is Large" shows their funky side.

"Angel Fire" defines them with such folk props as cups and saucers, soft white skirts and acoustic guitars.

"They do something fresh and modern that is core to our listeners," says Jay Peterson, DJ and program director for Annapolis progressive pop station WRNR (103.1 FM). He especially enjoys their psychedelic and trance music turns. "They're all over the board, he says, adding, "They're just the nicest folks in the world."

Critical kudos are common for the Kennedys. They've received more than 30 Washington Area Music Awards in addition to being heard on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Euro MTV and more.

Far from the mainstream

Despite the recognition and a devoted following, their music is still "under the radar screen," Maura says. The pair doesn't fit into one of the stylistic cubbyholes that mainstream success requires, so don't expect to see them on MTV sandwiched between Puff Daddy and Lauryn Hill.

"We don't really think in those terms," Pete says. Their concerns are more along the lines of, "wouldn't it be great if we could integrate an African groove with some Dylan-esque lyrics," Pete says. "If you keep doing that, the audience grows organically."

Their label, Rounder, encourages the Kennedys' eclectic approach, they say.

Not only are Pete and Maura partners in rhythm, they also act as their own booking agents (they call themselves Commission Impossible).

Time together

With their artistic, personal and business lives so intimately intertwined, Pete and Maura are constant companions. So far, the couple says, that hasn't caused any strain in their relationship.

"We have so much of the same interests, it's not really an issue," says Maura. She adds that the connectedness they feel onstage and their personal bond are the same.

The latter-day hippies, are fans of coffee, classic literature and vintage clothes. Apparently, their Dodge van is constantly crammed with thrift store finds.

"That's why we go on tour," Pete says with a laugh, "... to support the thrift store shopping."

Their frenetic touring has brought them all across America, and to the British Isles.

"We haven't been home for more than a couple weeks since 1993," Pete says. "We stay at Super 8s. In fact, we belong to the VIP club."

But right now, they're enjoying a rare interlude in Reston.

"We're actually working on our next album," Maura says.

Then Pete breaks in with deadpan sarcasm: "It's going to sound exactly like Lauryn Hill."

Concert

What: The Kennedys with Eddie From Ohio

When: Tonight; doors open at 6:30

Where: Recher Theatre, 512 York Road, Towson (in old Towson Theater)

Tickets: $10 in advance. $12 at the door

Call: Protix: 410-481-6500 or Recher box office: 410-337-7178

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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