Bap Kennedy’s Reckless Heart swings from soulful harmony, to honky-tonk, to rock and roll for the sake of it. And while it rings with reflections, insight and observation, it never loses its sense fun.
The album continues, and sadly closes, Kennedy’s stream of heartfelt Americana, written and performed by a man who was immersed in music for a life time. Reckless Heart was made a whole transatlantic distance away from America – still magically managing to capture Americana’s essence, understand it, respect it. He knew how to honour the sound and not just copy it. He knew how to work with the music and not just use it. He knew his craft, did our Bap.
“People from everywhere have been telling me how much my music means to them. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how many people have been touched by my songs” wrote Bap in his July blog post ‘The Magic of Music.’
The blog was following his life through a diagnosis of cancer. It was a diary of strong words softly spoken on his treatment, his progress, his family. Sometimes it was written for him by his wife/bass player/arranger-of-all-things, Brenda Boyd Kennedy. It was also a place where his lifetime’s worth of music was a tangible device on hand to explain what he meant, a tool to help him through grim times, it was the solid base that sustained the connection between him and us. A few short months later we lost him. “Belfast’s Celtic Soul Cowboy” (Mojo) died in November 2016 leaving behind a body of work that spanned right back to the early 80s with his band 10 Past 7, to the much loved Energy Orchard, then to his solo work and collaborations with giants like Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, and Van Morrison.
Sitting as I am on a grey New Year’s Day, those way-back feelings keep tapping at the window. The track “I Should Have Said” has been played more than once, it has tuned in to the mood. “Now we all know better, hindsight’s a wonderful thing” Kennedy sings while the guitar fills it up like chatter at another table. Brenda’s bass lands and bounces and tells us it’s OK to slow down; use your time wisely. “I should have said I love you/Could’ve found a way” he tells us with a Martin Stephenson folk-rock warmth and an ever so slight backing vocal behind his words.
Then “The Universe and Me” has Mr Kennedy “crazy as a daisy,” indeed the lyrics are some of my favourite on the album, with its “cosmic”s and its “crazy”s. The song also bears lines that draw my attention to the cold nature of the music business that Kennedy lived through. “There’s no music in money/There’s no money in love.” It’s a slow dancer, though to be honest, lyrically it’s coming from someone with nobody to dance with. “I’m down here all alone, just the universe and me” he sings, with soulful nearly gospel keys and bare, light harmonies from Brenda. Him and the universe seem to be doing just fine.
“I know I’m just a man, just flesh and blood” he tells us in opening track “Nothing Can Stand in the Way of Love.” All sorts of “bad mistakes” are acknowledged, but he’s past it, flicked it off, he’s dancing way beyond that and he’s holding his hand out to you to join him. There’s clapping, twanging, joyous piano. Kennedy brings us through the full gamut of emotions in Reckless Heart.
For fans it may take a while to listen to Reckless Heart without feeling a certain weight. There’s the sense of loss, and a responsibility to squeeze every last bloody drop out of these songs. As Bap Kennedy’s last addition to that lifetime’s body of work it was in the running during his final months, but they simply, sadly ran out of time to get the album released before he passed.
Reckless Heart was mournfully and triumphantly released just a month later in December ’16 (International release 27th January 2017). But the truth is that the album stands on its own, way beyond the story and the loss of a local hero. It speaks to me through the hollow parts of a cold New Year’s Day, it had us singing out loud in the kitchen while waiting for a late taxi to arrive before Christmas. It slapped me with rockabilly and tex-mexed me with outlaw cowboys and honky-tonked me through long journeys away, and coming back home. Yeah, he did, he knew his craft, did our Bap.