MUSIC BIO by STEVE DENNIS
“…Enough can be a feast indeed...” Perhaps this line out of his hauntingly beautiful “Miracle” sums up Michael's life.
We have been blessed by a tragically short life, but “enough was a feast indeed”- he gave so much to those who knew him through his generous spirit, his humility and his courage in the face of adversity.
It may also sum up his musical work-his talent as a songwriter has been acclaimed by any who were lucky enough to see his performances and listen to his recordings. However his recordings were limited to just two CDs of published work, both self recorded with the help of willing, talented friends.
Those who witnessed his gigs were struck by his stage presence and the relaxed and humorous banter he would weave into his concerts.
The following tribute, which was posted on The Age Legacy Tributes, crystallises this sentiment:
“…The fact that we had such an outstanding individual in our midst even though for far too short a time I gives (sic) thanks for knowing Michael, for hearing his beautiful, soulful, thoughtful music, for basking in his quiet, unassuming aura and listening to his funny sweet yarns. He was the consummate performer he had it all and people responded to him by giving him their full pin drop attention at any of the all too few performances I was privileged to witness. We have lost someone uniquely special, all the more lovely because he never thought so. I might plant some seeds now and try to simplify things. I am honoured for him to call me his friend...” ~ Jenny Watson, Sylvania NSW
Perfectly written and right on the mark!
I first met Michael, or Mick as he was known then, in Ballarat in 1990, just a year after I moved there in 1989.
I had met his “second cousin once removed”, John Caine, who, with his father, Jack and brother Michael fronted the “Eureka Rebels”. As the name suggests, this was an Irish Folk band that Sinn Fein would have been proud of - a good location to find a republican like Michael Kennedy! Mick sometimes played with the “Rebels” although not officially in the band! John had raved to me several times about this Mick Kennedy and his angelic high voice, so I was keen to meet him and hear his music. John and Mick had a duo they called “Once Removed”, named after their family relationship.
Michael's voice is unique - his range is not a lot more than a typical tenor, but it sounds incredibly high for a male voice. It isn't falsetto, but pure and rarely strained, quite amazing when you realise his lungs were not the set of bellows you find in an opera singer. I speak in the present tense, because I, along with many, am blessed to have recordings of Michael's, so I can listen to him at the flick of a switch.
Mick, back in the mid 90's, was a self confessed Shane Howard tragic, and worshipped him like a disciple. Shane Howard's Irish Catholic origins and his empathy for the plight of our indigenous people definitely appealed to Mick and he would watch live performances as often as he could. It was possibly not a coincidence that Mick ended up buying a house in Howard St, Ballarat! Mick recorded “Digging for Soul” at Howard St in a room that he lined with mattresses to deaden the acoustics and block out any outside noises. Mick was fastidious about the quality of his recordings, which shines through.
When Michael toured in Western Australia in the early 2000's he played at various venues including the Fairbridge Folk Festival, and also at Kulcha in Fremantle. He was invited onto ABC radio for an interview, and performed “Baking Bread” live on air, which brought the ABC presenter “to tears” (in her own words). Michael was winner of the Lis Johnston Award for vocal excellence, at the National Folk Festival at Canberra.
There was another small folk festival, which I think was organised by Andrew Pattison, near Kyneton, in the late 1990's. One of the performers was Kristina Olsen, who we had seen at Port Fairy around that time and really wanted to see again. We missed Michael's first gig there, and at Kristina's set she asked if there was a “Michael Kennedy” in the audience, because she really wanted to “meet him, and get better acquainted wink, wink”. Michael apparently had made several references to Kristina when he performed “She Takes No Prisoners”, which includes the lines like “She'll eat you alive” and “she'll suck the very marrow from your bones, and I couldn't think of a nicer way to go”, which immediately appealed to Kristina's steamier side, given the content of some of her songs like “Better than TV” and “The Big O”. My first thought when Kristina was so keen to meet Michael after he had mentioned her in the context of “She takes no prisoners” was that he might have bitten off more than he could chew! As it turned out, it was the start of a friendship that saw Michael performing on stage with Kristina and Peter Grayling on a few occasions, and the respect they held for Michael's stage performance was clearly evident.
It is yet 10 days since Michael sadly passed away as I write this, and since that time I have been immersing myself in his two recordings, “Digging For Soul”, and “Seed”. “Digging For Soul” propelled Michael into recognition, both for the quality of his songwriting, and the arrangements he chose, with some fine instrumental work and vocal harmonies. In his second work, “Seed”, his quality as a lyricist and his precise and crystal clear guitar work shone through and showed Michael to be truly world class.
I have to admit to being initially slightly underwhelmed by “Seed” after “Digging For Soul”. Michael's first CD could be put on in the car or as background music, with its lively rhythm and mainly uplifting songs and wonderful instrumental work, easy to sing along melodies. In amongst these were the poignant lament “Possum Coat”, truly beautiful and compelling, and the quirky lullaby “Strange Night”, so cleverly written.
One of my personal favourites off that CD was “Takes Me Back”, an ode to the Earth
“Took a look at you through another eye,
Spinning through the heavens dressed in sea and sky
Carrying the burden of a race grown wild,
Carrying the first steps of a precious child…”
“One life, one chance given, till she takes me back again...”
“Digging for Soul” was a celebration, a fitting first recording, and a revelation for all those of us lucky enough to hear it and see Michael perform tracks from it.
It has only been in the last week, listening to “Seed” over and over (something I guess Michael would be slightly aghast at-”less is more” was his adage) that the meaning and depth of passion in this work has hit home like a Damascus experience, like a bright light. Michael's vocals and precise and inventive guitar work have become an earworm to me, to the extent that I don't want to listen to any other music, and gladly can turn off the radio from the election campaign nausea. (I wonder sometimes if Michael chose this time to go as he could see a long stint of conservative government on the horizon!)
Watching the few Youtube recordings of Michael, one playing live with Chris While (Pennyweight Hill) at the National Folk Festival, and another fronting the Boite Millenium Choir in 2010, a “hair on the back of your neck” performance of Dhungalla, gives you a brief look at his musical skill but leaves you with a profound impression of just how good a musician Michael was-his guitar work with Dhungalla is truly superb- a small taste of a great performer, - “enough can be a feast indeed”!
One comment on the Youtube site below the performance of Dhungalla described Michael as “an angel spending time with us”. His voice was truly angelic, and if there is a choir of angels, they have just had a gifted recruit arrive to front them and do solos.
His lyrics on “Seed” show no bitterness about his lot in life, but rather compassion and gratitude:
“a smile despite the hell you’re in..."
"the heart survives the heartless thief
the hope that rises out of grief...”
Previously, on “Digging for Soul” he penned many lyrics of hope and a better world:
In “Half a Chance”:
“life needs only a whisper
and the soul can sing and dance
given half a chance…”
Michael didn't like greed, and unsustainable exploitation of resources at the expense of culture and the environment, and hence wrote many laments along that theme. His love for his home country around the Murray River shines through River Girl, the Adelaide, Possum Coat, and of course his masterpiece lament, Dhungalla.
If you watch the Youtube clip of Dhungalla, with the Boite Millenium choir, you see Michael's humility at the end- in his haste to get up to acknowledge the choir and divert attention away from himself, he seems to dampen the final note on the guitar-he almost shied away from the applause which he so deserved on that performance.
“Seed” has so many carefully penned, well thought out lyrics:
“Would we truly let you die,
or can we swim to the other side
Dream ourselves into an ancient place
To another river long ago,
already named and given soul
Running through a delicate embrace…”
“…all along this river world, nations like a string of pearls...”
“Who can tell what we have done
to the innocence of those to come...”
“it’s a sad sad thing, that I will sing, too few songs before my days are done”
“Lately, I've been watching love come through my own front door...”
“…singing lullabies unto bones.....”
“Francis Has His Way”:
“…seeds don't fall, they dive.....”
It almost seems as if Michael is singing to us from beyond, with “Don't Look Down” on "Digging for Soul", and “30 Words” on "Seed", as if he knew one day he would go before his loved ones and friends and wanted to leave a vocal legacy, a singing message...
“How long have your tired eyes been dry
How much longer will you hold
There's nothing nicer than a flood of tears,
If it keeps the heart from growing cold
I wanna hear it a little more spirit talking
I wanna see it a little more tightrope walking
So don't look down…”
There's no doubt Michael's music will live on, and that his legacy, apart from his serenity, humour and gentle disposition, will be the strong messages he has woven into his music, his fine guitar work, and his beautiful angelic voice; and of course his love for others.
May his love live on in us all.
Steve Dennis, September 2013