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March 23rd, 2016

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

Mo Kenney, Ready for a Big Stage Next Time in NYC


I’d seen Mo Kenney perform live, but never in such an up-close setting as when she played Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 3 on the lower east side of Manhattan this past Sunday night. I’d heard her sit in during an outdoor set at the CBC Music Festival last May, with Joel Plaskett and the Emergency band, and then in a solo show at the same festival where organizers put her in a too-small tent that overflowed with a couple hundred enthusiastic fans. Suffice to say that in Canada, where she’s become pretty well known, Mo Kenney warrants a big stage. In NYC, where she’s not well known yet, the small downstairs room at Rockwood was just right, though I’d add she’ll need a bigger one here next time.

She opened her set with her song “I Faked It,” full of scorn and romantic disappointment:
It was never you and me
When I said it was forever
I was lying through my teeth

For example
when I said it wouldn’t hurt
there was not a chance in hell
it was ever gonna work

To be truthful
the pleasure didn’t last
Before I took a drink
the ice had melted in the glass

While I’d seen Kenney really wail on a hollow-bodied Gretsch electric guitar at the outdoor shows—and play on an acoustic guitar—she had only a small acoustic guitar this night, I think a Martin, and got great sound from it. What’s more, she plays really interesting stuff. In fact, her chording embroidered the harsh lyrics of this first song with a harp-like beauty, a felt contrast to the embittered narrator’s regrets. When it ended, she remarked to the audience, “I thought I’d start with that one, so right off the bat you could see the sort of person I am.” It was a rueful, humorous note. She kept up that sort of banter throughout, showing an easy stage presence, even she was just tuning. Her second song was one she said she’d written at age 16,”Eden,” also the first song on her excellent 2012 debut album, a wistful song with a finger-picked passage that reminded me of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” In her next break, she mentioned that she’d driven a car in NYC for the first time ever, a bit different from Halifax, and how glad she was it had been quiet, a Sunday. Not only are her lyrics full of arresting emotional images, when she toys with wordless vocalizations, doing a kind of folk-music scat, or assays to whistle a chorus, it comes off perfectly. She confessed to writing a lot of “sad songs,” but added she’s written at least one happy number, “The Happy Song,” which she played with a lilting eagerness, including a cleanly whistled passage.

She also mentioned Canadian rock superstar Joel Plaskett, who recognized Mo’s talents while she was still just in high school*. Plaskett’s produced her first two albums, and toured across Canada with him and the Emergency trio. He also recommended she consider covering a song called “Telephones,” which Mo played Sunday night. It was written by the Cape Breton, Nova Scotia group Mardeen, seen in the video below, and also has great lyrics.

The rest of her set unfolded rapidly, compressing an hour into what seemed mere minutes, though it was actually almost another ten songs. Mo Kenney is on tour in the US over the next few weeks, with stops coming up in Syracuse, Buffalo, Washington, DC, Northampton, MA, and Saratoga Springs, NY, and several other towns. (details here and below). If you’re in any of these locales, I urge you to go hear Mo Kenney. She’s a brilliant songwriter, an engaging performer, a savvy song picker, and a big talent. She ended the night by telling one more story, about how devastated she’d been by David Bowie’s death (“I took out all my LPs, began playing them while weeping, a lump on the floor,” he’d meant so much to her in formative years.), and then played a cover of Bowie’s song, “Five Years,” with the timeless verse “Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk.” Kyle and I really enjoyed Mo’s performance and visiting with her after the show.

Here also are some pictures I took when I heard Mo last summer at the CBC Music Festival.

*Source for this is Grant Lawrence of CBCMusic

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