It’s appropriate that the Featherstone Center for the Arts will kick off its summer Musical Mondays series with a performance by folksinger and songwriter Kevin Keady. Not only has Mr. Keady been in the lineup of weekly musical outings since the series’ inception, he also built the outdoor stage there, which is used for plays, poetry readings, and musical performances.
Although he describes his musical genre as American folk, Mr. Keady says, “I do believe that I’m essentially a storyteller, and I thrive in settings that allow for that. Which is why I’ve been a big proponent of stages all of my life. I’m not crazy about the bar scene. I like a place where people are willing to listen. They understand that something’s happening here and they pay a little attention to it.”
Featherstone’s outdoor stage is a perfect venue for an audience to enjoy Mr. Keady’s clever lyrics and wry observations of modern life. Set smack-dab in the middle of the arts campus’s rolling green pasture and surrounded by the woodsy trail system, the outdoor arena is the ideal setting for a combination of attentive listeners, picnickers, and frolicking kids and dogs. There’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy an old-fashioned country fair atmosphere.
Mr. Keady’s homegrown style suits the atmosphere well. Although he describes his genre as American folk, don’t be fooled into thinking that Mr. Keady’s stock in trade is ballads or timeless folksy themes. The poet and musician turns his gaze on contemporary American life with a humorous bent and a wink at the follies and foibles of the human condition.
For example, the song “ZYX” relates the story of a driver triumphing over a police officer with his mastery of the reverse alphabet. “Instant Winner,” a song about scratch-ticket addiction, features the chorus, “And he scratch, scratch, scratch the itch. He said someday I’ll strike it rich. And turn this sorry sinner into an instant winner.”
“Road Rage” describes an otherwise nice guy who turns into an adrenaline-pumping maniac as soon as he turns the key in the ignition. That song earned him an invitation to WUMB radio in Boston as a finalist in the best new songwriter competition in 1996. Here’s an example of some of Mr. Keady’s trademark cleverly rhymed lyrics from that song: “At work in my business suit, I’m witty, charming, polite, and cute. Patience is an attribute. Until I hit that late commute. Which is when and where it’s clear to me. The whole world is my enemy. And every single car I see is keeping me from breaking free. My thoughts they drift towards homicide, my anger surges from inside. Mixes with my sense of pride. I pray to God we don’t collide.”
What might appear to be depressing subjects are handled with sly humor and an appealing folk-rap sort of style. Mr. Keady’s sound is a mix of country, rock, and folk. In “$13 Check” he channels a little Johnny Cash with his gruff delivery and his tale of woe: “Turned my cheek so many times I can hardly move my neck. I’d leave right now if you’d cash this $13 check.”
Mr. Keady is noted for his masterful rhyming skills. He has the talent of a rapper for coming up with unusual but very appropriate — never forced — rhymes. Every line is delivered in a clear speak-singing that guarantees that you don’t miss any of his jokes, puns, and clever commentary.
It’s not surprising that Mr. Keady’s singing could be compared to someone like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan in its talking-blues or rhythm-poetry style. The Groton native began playing guitar and writing songs at 19, after originally focusing on writing and poetry.
The young Mr. Keady had Allen Ginsberg as an early mentor of sorts. After meeting the legendary beat poet at a book signing, Mr. Keady forged a friendship with Ginsberg and was eventually installed on the poet’s retreat in Cherry Valley, N.Y. — a rustic farmhouse with no electricity that Ginsberg dubbed the Committee on Poetry.
For a year and a half, Mr. Keady lived there, growing vegetables and caretaking the property. During that time he also played guitar during a couple of Ginsberg’s gigs (with the poet accompanying himself on harmonium).
The songwriter recalls a few of the things that Ginsberg told him. “He used to say very pithy little things,” Mr. Keady remembers. “I suggested once that if he wrote differently he could reach more people. He said, ‘I don’t write for anyone. I write for eternity.’” Mr. Keady laughs as he recalls the youthful brashness and naivety of his advice to the great poet. He also took Ginsberg’s words to heart.
“I’ve thought about that so often,” Mr. Keady says. “You can’t think about what so-and-so would think of this. It’s got to be just what you feel truthfully as if it’s going into a time capsule of what life was like.”
Ginsberg also offered a helpful piece of advice, according to Mr. Keady. “He said, ‘Assume that your audience has a short attention span and try to give them images to grasp onto and move forward.”
Imagery is something that Mr. Keady conjures in his songs, especially imagery that deals with what he knows best: life on the Vineyard. In 1990 the singer and songwriter moved to the Island from Northampton, shortly after his stint on Ginsberg’s farm. He got a job as a hand at Pimpneymouse Farm in Chappaquiddick, and has never looked back. He lives in a little hunting cabin on the property, and splits his time between working the farm, writing, and performing at venues around the Island, including at the biweekly West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Mr. Keady has recorded four CDs, as well as his unique half-sung, half-recited musical version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”
His new life has given Mr. Keady a unique perspective on life on the Vineyard, evidenced in two of his more popular songs. “The Midwinter Waltz” deals with the isolation of the Island in the off-season. “Hay Day” takes full advantage of the imagery lesson Mr. Keady learned from Ginsberg.
Nelson’s happy as a pig in dirt.
In his overalls and his cowboy shirt
He starts up the baler with a sputter and a spurt
It’s a hay day down on the farm.
Take your hooks in your hand.
Climb aboard the wagon.
The tractor’s snortin’ like a big green dragon.
Ain’t no stoppin’ till the day is through
C’mon everybody, there’s work to do.
Kevin Keady and the Cattledrivers perform weekly at The West Tisbury Farmers Market. The will also take Featherstone’s Outdoor Stage on Monday, June 20 from 6:30-8:00 pm. $10 for adults, $5 with Our Island Club Card. Children under 14 free.