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Brian Kennedy - Cambridge Folk Festival, 28 July 2001

Guests:  Eddi Reader and Chip Taylor

I thought I’d tell you about the brief performance by Brian Kennedy I saw at the 37th Cambridge Folk Festival in the UK on Saturday, 28 July. Brian played on the previous Friday as well, with a full band, but I just saw him perform on Saturday evening in the Radio 2 tent, on his own playing acoustic guitar. Sadly, his set overlapped with that of the great Loudon Wainwright III, who was flown in specially to replace John Prine, who had broken his elbow. So we were catching a bit of Loudon’s set in the larger tent before making our way back to the smaller Radio 2 stage, when we were horrified to hear Brian’s amazing voice ringing through the air as he performed the Flower of Magherally a cappella. Horror is certainly not the normal reaction to Brian’s voice, but it is a suitable feeling when you realise that the performer you came to see has begun his set early, before you arrived.

Once we raced to meet up with our friends who were at the front, carelessly hurling fellow festival-goers out of our way so that we could selfishly get as close to Brian as possible, I was able to observe Brian’s wise dress sense. To perform in still heat in the mid-80s, he had the sense to wear a white linen short sleeved shirt with beige cotton trousers, rather than sweltering in icky man-made materials as many other suffering artists did. He also wore a he-man bracelet on his right wrist, a ring, watch and almost a dog-collar chain. His hair has crept down past his collar again, well past, and has a feathered layered look around his face-not quite Jennifer Aniston though, you’ll be relieved to hear.

When he finished the folk song (how appropriate for the folk festival), people in the audience began shouting out requests--Brian sometimes performs without a set list and just takes on board people’s suggestions. My friend who runs the Official Boo Hewerdine site requested ‘Glass and Diamonds,’ one of the songs Brian performs that was written by Boo, and this one is rather obscure as it was only released as a Brian B-side, though a tiny instrumental part was used in the film Fever Pitch, as Boo worked on the soundtrack, which also beautifully incorporated Van’s Bright Side of the Road. (But what is this called? A digression. Indeed.) Brian noted cheerfully that there were Boo fans in the audience, but did not play that catchy tune.

Instead, his second song was Town, an old favourite from his first album. As I once was an outsider who came to London and initially couldn’t get over how you can sit beside the same person on the train for 45 years and never even acknowledge him, I always mentally chuckle when I hear this song, so typical of London: ‘And no one wants to talk on this train.’ It’s probably not at all about Brian first coming to London, but I always relate to it in that way. At the end of this performance, Brian clarified that the ‘Town’ tonight was Cambridge by singing its name a few times to get the crowd excited, after pausing to point out the woman belly dancing (a lot of bellies were on show, in that heat) and informing us that it was the first time that anyone had ever belly-danced to that song. He was quite pleased with this new development.

Next, after gushing over the sound engineers so heartily that they seemed to grow a bit suspicious that he was being sarcastic, as I guess they had not yet experienced such an appreciative and kind person who likes to give credit where it’s due, Brian launched into Playing with My Heart, which is always brilliant live, vastly superior in my opinion to the studio production. After that, Brian told the thrilled few hundred people watching him that he had just recorded a new album in New York, and he was going to perform a track from that, one written by the aforementioned Boo Hewerdine and Calum MacColl (ex-The Bible and Eddi Reader backing band, son of Ewan, half-brother of the late great Kirsty). The song, The Reason We Are Here, was a marvellous upbeat affair that had the audience clapping to the quick beat. The wonderful punctuated verses and stunning chorus were all about living life to the fullest and taking the time to feel. I certainly hope this song is not tinkered with too much in production, because it was magnificent with just Brian and his guitar, and I can hardly wait for the album to come out eventually so I can enjoy this again.

Brian then sat on a high stool, announcing that it was ‘stool time-well, it is a folk festival after all,’ allowing that endearing giggly grin to flash over his face briefly. Now truly a folk artist, or at least truly a seated artist, Brian introduced another new song, one he had written in Greenwich Village when he was there performing in Riverdance on Broadway, he was thrilled to explain. For some reason, a woman in the audience shouted at him to ask whether he had seen the house with pigs on it whilst in the Village, and drew him into a far too long conversation about said house. No, he hadn’t seen it. Was it her house? No, it was just a house in Greenwich Village, blue with some pink pigs painted on it. Some people go see it. Should he have gone to see it? Well, it’s got pigs on it. The whole conversation between artist and audience member, shouted over the edge of the stage, seemed rather surreal as we would probably all have rather listened to Brian perform instead during the short period of time he had been allocated, but I am sure that the woman meant well, and it again illustrates Brian’s kindness and patience. Perhaps, next time former Brian-collaborator Van Morrison tours America, if he mentions that he’s been in London, you could each take turns calling out questions like: ‘Did you see St Paul’s Cathedral?’ ‘Did you go past the Tower of London?’ ‘What about Covent Garden? There are street artists there’ and see if he deals with it in the same way as Brian. When the bizarre conversation ended, Brian looked up and said to the audience, ‘Join us next week at the Intimacy Workshop,’ to appreciative chuckles from the audience.

Finally, returning to Christopher Street, the new song born in The Village, Brian treated us to a gentle stroll with his soft guitar playing. The song was enjoyable, though not as immediately appealing as the previous new one, and it reminded me that Brian is an incredible guitar player as well as singer as he provided some amazing guitar picking throughout the song, occasionally pushing his bushy eyebrows into an expressive arch as he sang impressive note after note. When he finished, my Boo Website friend anorakly requested one of the unreleased songs by Boo that is expected to be on Brian’s new album, which threw Brian. How could he be getting requests for songs that no one else had heard yet, he asked? He wondered aloud whether the request had actually come from himself, that maybe someone had slipped him some acid and he was in the audience at the same time as being on stage, and just chuckled away with that boy-like grin while he contemplated this possibility.

He did play another new song, but not that new song. The song he performed next was written in Curtis Stigers’ flat, he said, presumably with Curtis Stigers, and he treated us to a quick imitation of Stigers singing his big hit, I Wonder Why, which amused the audience even more than it did Brian. I have to cynically say that I thought the intro to this song, Don’t Look at Me That Way, sounded an awful lot like I Wonder Why, but much better as it was followed by Brian’s voice, of course. This easy, lovely song was wonderfully catchy and even included a sax solo in the middle, which Brian provided vocally as he had no sax. The audience even began singing along. At the end, Brian even mentioned the name of the fabulous Paul Brady--perhaps a hint that he might be playing with Paul during one of his trillion nights at Vicar Street in Dublin [indeed he did!].

He then changed guitars--still acoustic though--and resumed standing, presumably marking the departure from his folk artist ways as he moved onto the pop section of his performance. He received rapturous applause as he began playing Captured, a particularly beautiful rendition, which meandered into Wild Mountain Thyme, with which almost everyone in the tent sang along for several verses. Rather than sing that a cappella, Brian carried on providing a rather funky rhythm on his guitar, which made an interesting combination with the ultra folky voices, beautifully blending with Brian’s. He ended the song by briefly returning to Captured.

After that, Brian announced that he would now be joined on stage by his wonderfully talented old friend Eddi Reader, and everyone applauded a few times, but Eddi did not appear. Eventually she seemed to hear her cue--perhaps she’d been stuck queuing for one of the port-a-loos--and rushed on stage from the back, sporting a typically mad ensemble. Eddi, an Edith Piaf worshipper and true Artiste, with whom the great singing guitarist Johnny Scott has been touring this year, always makes unusual fashion statements. Today, she was modelling an acceptable low-waisted wispy short skirt patterned after Monet’s lily pond, with a bit of a polyester halter top full of big red and orange swirls. Never one to plan her set lists, she asked Brian what they would be doing, and he answered Sam Cooke, before starting You Send Me. Each took turns singing and then they blended their stunning voices from time to time, with Eddi tacking on a bit of What A Wonderful World at the end, waving her arms about madly as she always does as she sings. The crowd went wild for this amazing performance by both singers, and Eddi kissed Brian and left the stage.

As she left and Brian sang Eddi’s praises, the man in front of me whose hat and cigarette smoke are featured in most of my photographs called out to Brian, ‘She’s better looking than Van, isn’t she Brian?’ I had to note--and I mean no offence by this--how curious it was that many Van fans eventually start to metamorphasise into Van. Brian then remembered that he’d promised someone at the beginning, just after Flower of Magherally, that he would play Carrickfergus, but hadn’t wanted to do so at that time as he felt it was too depressing to play too early in the show. But just before performing that, he began singing a cappella again: Tar Tar Tar, which blended into Carrickfergus in the end, soothing the audience who listened attentively.

Brian then said that it was getting late so he had to finish up, but first he would bring out another guest, as one of the marvellous things about these festivals was that you bumped into many other wonderful artists. Various choices went through my head, but I was certain that it would be either Boo Hewerdine, who had played earlier that day with Eddi and amazing acoustic guitarist Colin Reid, or perhaps he would be joined by fellow Belfast boy Colin Reid himself. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, legendary songwriter Chip Taylor (brother of Jon Voight and thus uncle of Angeline Jolie) came on the stage, looking terribly bright with golden hair, tidy, with specs and dressed in black.

Brian sings on Taylor’s new single called Stroke City. As Taylor began to tinker with his guitar, Brian mentioned that Taylor had written the great classic Wild Thing, and started making reference to a cover by Shaggy. Chip, after gushing about what a joy it was finally to play with Brian, who was ‘the greatest,’ announced that they were going to perform the song how he had originally written it. I expected Wild Thing, but when they launched into Angel of Morning, I realised how totally un-hip I was by not keeping up with the Shaggy charts. It was amazing--Chip played guitar, whilst Brian stood unencumbered by anything other than a lyric sheet from which he read whilst singing. Chip joined in for the chorus, as did much of the audience, and the mood was wonderful-the beauty was enough to let us forget the extreme heat. I thought of volunteering to add Shaggy-type grunts and mumbles as they sang but then I remembered how un-hip I was and refrained.

Sadly, all too soon, after 50 minutes of singing, Brian said good night and left us. I had not seen or heard Brian perform live since before he went to New York for Riverdance, after a period of seeing him fairly frequently, and the Cambridge Folk Festival was a wonderful way to recharge the batteries and keep me going until the next time, which will be far too far in the future. (Hugest thanks to JB for making it possible!).

Copyright © 2001 by TC. All rights reserved.

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