Kelleigh McKenzie
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Kelleigh McKenzie

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"CD Review: Chances"

"McKenzie...commands the spotlight."

Any listener mistaking the compelling "O Mother" - the lead track on McKenzie's strong debut - for Dolly Parton can be forgiven. With her banjo, foot-stomp and soaring melody, she does sound a hell of a lot like the great lady on this track.

But then "Chances" steps onto the long, hard road that has led this native Oregonian determinedly through New York City's theater and music circles to upstate NY's deep musical clime, revealing an artist coming into her own. Nearly a decade after a mystery ailment left her unable to play her trusted instruments, "Gin" and the acoustic bounce of the lusty "Call It A Day" take center stage and McKenzie, like any artist knowing her time has come, commands the spotlight.

With an embracing froth of roots, rock, and Americana; a high, clear voice unafraid to tweak a melody; and songs both personal (the slinky and decisive "In Between") and social (the Appalachian blues blur "War For Sale"), McKenzie joins the ranks of NY's singer/songwriters well worth your listening time.
- Mike Jurkovic, Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange


"CD Review: Chances"

"a brilliant CD"

Sick of guitars? I am, (and I play one for a living). If so, you needn't look any further than Rosendale resident Kelleigh McKenzie's new CD, "Chances."

Sure, a guitar shows up now and then, but the sounds that are always way at the top of the mix are McKenzie's driving banjo and haunting voice. Recorded in Catskill at NRS, and produced by her husband Jeff Michne, McKenzie uses local heroes Scott Petito on bass and Dan Hickey on drums. And the results are stunning.

Calling her back home, "O Mother" showcases her spare sound and copious use of space. The bluesy "Gin" has a sultry delivery. Soon, "Call it a Day" pounds its way into your soul. After an ethereal intro, Hickey's big backbeat kicks in with ["In Between"] as McKenzie's cool voice hovers over the track. The bleak tale of the future "2017" ("I've heard the stories of a time when we could choose") is moving, while "War For Sale" continues that dark futuristic theme.

The Beatles did dark too, and McKenzie's reading of Lennon/McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" is simply stunning.

The mood changes with "The Bus Song," a simmering hot jazzy number as McKenzie serpentines around a lucid bass line, and with "Roark," which is about her dog.

Other highlights include the dark and droning "Easy Time," written for the late Chris Whitley. McKenzie's Appalachian lilt and harmonies are outstanding, and her phrasing is impeccable.

Excitingly not just another girl with a guitar, banjo-toting McKenzie has on her finger-picking hands a brilliant CD that sounds like nothing else you've heard this year. Her depth and insight are astounding and "Chances" is simply one of the best regional CDs of the year.

Worth a "chance" for sure. - David Malachowski, Daily Freeman


"CD Review: Chances"

One might describe this singer-songwriter as specializing in "banjo thumping urban folk"; that is, after all, the tagline Kelleigh McKenzie herself provides at her MySpace page. And if you just did a cursory skim of her debut (or glanced at the sleeve photo, which depicts her clutching a banjo) you might come away thinking exactly that. The first two cuts, for example, are tuneful twang stuff - "O Mother" prominently features McKenzie's banjo, along with her sweet warble, for most of the track, with percussion and bass (the "thump") kicking in towards the end; "Gin," that follows, again spotlights McKenzie's picking, here set to an insistent martial beat- but unless you listen close, you'll miss a lot of subtleties and nuance, the kind telegraphed in the latter's lyrics:

Give me your secrets
Give me your chains...
You're fine, I like you better
When you're crawling on the ground

This is not a woman inclined to compromise in the service of expectations. Indeed, for a quote-unquote "Americana" release, Chances thwarts easy pigeonholing at every turn. Possessing a clear, keening voice that brings to mind, variously, Shawn Colvin, Jolie Holland, Tori Amos and a less pixieish Dolly Parton, and armed with instruments culled from both the traditional (acoustic guitar, dobro, producer/guitarist Jeff Michne's lap steel) and the freak-folk (harmonium, mando guitar, the droning/Sitar-like tanpura) communities, McKenzie weaves pure aural magic across the course of these 10 songs and two interludes. Each number is riveting in its own right, but among the album's obvious highlights: "War For Sale," a PJ Harvey-esque, loops-strewn slice of bluesy psychedelia; "In Between," slinkily seductive in its folky lope, and boasting a particularly sassy vocal turn from McKenzie; and a lovely version of the Beatles' oft-covered Eleanor Rigby" that's perfectly true to the original thanks to McKenzie having resisted the urge to embellish unnecessarily.

There's also "2017," utterly spine chilling in its droning, atmospheric minimalism, whose desolate, allegorical pro-choice lyrics -sung by McKenzie in a tone that's one-part gasp, one-part shudder and several parts cautionary - bear repeating in full here:

I came of age in 2017
My baby forced to bear
I've heard the stories of a time when we could choose
We didn't realize how much we had to lose
We lose

In fact, it's chilling just reading those words.

McKenzie apparently began work on this album a decade or so after moving from Oregon to New York City, only to be hit by crippling pain brought on by a mysterious, undiagnosed ailment. A long recovery period, which involved getting out of the city and off to the rurality of Rosendale (in the Hudson Valley), ensued. The time and relative deliberation, then, that went into the making of Chances proved serendipitous. It's a stunning album by any measure - but as a debut, it's one of those lightning-in-a-bottle affairs that we music fans live for. - Fred Mills, Blurt (formerly HARP)


"CD Review: Chances"

DIY Top 12 Pick

This debut album from Oregonian-turned-New Yorker Kelleigh McKenzie abounds with promise. The triple-threat singer/songwriter/musician plays guitar, banjo and dobro, contributing songs that address a range of contemporary issues. The haunting “Underground” tells a story of innocence lost; the blues-influenced “War for Sale” and the women’s-rights advocacy tune “2017,” though both short on lyrics, make strong points. McKenzie lightens the mood with the seductive “Easy Time,” an assertive come-on, and the tongue-in-cheek “Roark,” an ode to her favorite companion, the “naked adventurer.” McKenzie’s versatile chops (she’s a student of jazz and bluegrass) and her unique voice, sometimes channeling the Appalachian melancholy of Dolly Parton or the Texas twang of Nanci Griffith, should carry this adventurous project far.

- Performing Songwriter


"CD Review: Chances"

"One of this year's best."

Switching easily between acoustic guitar and banjo with a distinctive frailing style, Kelleigh McKenzie supports her impressively supple wide-ranged voice, wrapping that voice around some truly classic sounding songs. Producing in tandem with partner and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Michne, and performing with a confidence that is on par with Joni Mitchell and Nanci Griffiths, McKenzie brings the songwriting goods with standouts "Gin" and "Call It A Day" that make you stop what you're doing to pay attention. McKenzie apparently has recently weathered an unwanted hiatus of almost a decade due to a mysterious ailment that left her wracked with pain and unable to play music. This CD does have a sense of making up for lost time. She does indeed - one of this year's best.

- Ross Rice, Editor, Roll Magazine


"CD Review: Chances"

July 2008 Album of the Month

For anyone who says folk music is one-dimensional, I challenge you to listen to Kelleigh McKenzie's excellent CD, "Chances". You will be eating humble pie for the rest of your days. This incredibly dark collection of banjo-infested Americana combines classic bluegrass sounds with the alternative rock stylings of PJ Harvey to great effect.

On this, her debut album, Kelleigh draws on her own experiences in her 44 years of life to deliver an album that is, quite simply, beautiful. It is important to remember that beauty is not merely symbolized by flowers and sunshine.

Opening track "O Mother" is straight from Guthrie Park. So we begin nicely enough - a nicely arranged bluegrass song. This is just the start. McKenzie has a wonderful ability in that she can go from sounding sweet and innocent to sounding like death's little sister in an instant. "Underground" is probably the saddest song you'll ever hear. Kelleigh's mournful voice comes out here, and, like it or not, you will listen to her words.

A wonderful version of "Eleanor Rigby" follows later. A more fitting cover song could not be found for this album. Incredible. The album ends on a rather humourous note - a tongue-in-cheek tribute to her dog.

This album could very well have turned out to be a dozen dreary dirges but it's far from that. The banjo is a wonderful instrument, and Kelleigh gets a wonderfully dark sound out of it. It isn't heavy on instrumentation but Kelleigh and her banjo make a sound more deadly than mega-popular Coldplay could ever hope to achieve through visiting churches. Kelleigh is the real deal.

*THE CARROT RATINGS EXPLAINED: 5 carrots means we have found an album that reminds us why we should be listening to music. Involving, captivating or whatever you want to call it. You end up playing the album all the time. You leave the windows open so people walking down the street below can be introduced to the music. You bore your friends by talking about the album. All the time. Music as it is meant to be done. A recommended purchase.

- Peter McGee, The Bluesbunny RATING: 5 carrots*


"Talented Ulster resident found music while acting"

"This record is a hit."

Kelleigh McKenzie's foray into the world of stringed instruments began in an unlikely way. And her career along the way has taken one major left turn that could be described as heartbreaking. But in the end, it didn't break her.

McKenzie lives in Rosendale and next Thursday will stage a CD release party at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock for "Chances," her new album.

This record is a hit. This collection of 12 songs offers up songwriting that comes from a genuine, humble and reflective place; with vocals that conjure Allison Krauss and Rickie Lee Jones and rival those of Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin.

McKenzie's road to the performing stage began at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where she was enrolled years ago in the drama department. The native of rural Oregon was cast in a play, "Marathon 33," which detailed the story of June Havoc, the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee, who danced in those crazy dance marathons of the 1930s.

At a certain point in the marathon, each character would perform. The script called for McKenzie's character to "play a string instrument very poorly."

"A friend of mine had an old banjo," McKenzie said. So she learned that instrument for the play and stuck with it, partly because, "I love Steve Martin" and "I love Pete Seeger."

"Pete Seeger - for me, he is the master of the story," she said of the folk legend and Fishkill resident, "of using the banjo as a tool to tell the story."

McKenzie after college moved to New York City to pursue acting. But according to her Web site, "after graduating and subsequently eking out a living as an actor in New York City, McKenzie's first songs began to emerge as she taught herself to play banjo and acoustic guitar. The exuberance and thrill she felt while making music ultimately trumped the drudgery of the actor's life; she quit the theater and joined downtown alt-country band Little Green."

Moderate success followed, as did a debilitating, mysterious illness. "It took over my entire upper body," she said of the pain. Holistic medicine helped with her recovery. And then she and her husband - also a musician - left the fast pace of New York City for the small-town feel of Ulster County.

A friend had moved to Saugerties and told them about a place they had grown fond of called Rosendale. More recently, McKenzie discovered the Bearsville Theater while watching The Wood Brothers perform. "I remember thinking it was a magical night," she said. "I thought, 'This is where I want to release my record.' "

Kelleigh McKenzie will play the Bearsville Theater lounge Thursday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $10. Visit www.bearsvilletheater.com and www.kelleighmckenzie.com for information. - John W. Barry, Poughkeepsie Journal


"Gotta hand it to her"

"A stunning solo debut."

How annoying it can be when a seemingly negative event happens to you, only to be aided and abetted by friends and family telling you that it was a blessing. But as time fades, that cliche is at least partly true. Singer/songwriter / banjo-picker / guitar-strummer Kelleigh McKenzie is a classic case study...[Almost a decade ago] she was in the process of making her first record. But her hands hurt - a lot. The idea of grabbing and holding only anything became unbearable.

Fast forward a decade, after endless attempts at figuring out just what was wrong. She feels better. A string of solo dates around Rosendale convinces her to get back on the horse with husband and musical partner Jeff Michne acting as musical director. The result is "Chances," her terrific, self-produced debut record, which will be released and celebrated July 10 out at the Bearsville Theater.

The pair did their homework and were smart enough to enlist award-winning engineer/bassist Scott Petito (the Fugs, James Taylor, Rory Block, Leslie Ritter) to record and play on the project., and to grab drummer Dan Hickey (They Might Be Giants, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones) to spruce up three tracks. The result is an impressive songscape that achieves a nice balance despite sporting a wide range of tunes.

The singer acknowledges being careful about maintaining a sonic consistency on the record, thus connecting a solo piece with a duet - an almost-bluegrass romp to a fleshed-out tune with a bit of sheen and polish. McKenzie is also one of the rare breed of multi-instrumentalists who can really play all of the pieces of wood that she wishes to caress, pluck and pound.

So clearly those who said to her that her odd illness had a silver lining were kind of right. While her physical chops needed to be dusted off a little bit, her writing, emotional heft and musical and personal perspective all put her in line to deliver a stunning solo debut - and we suggest that the gig will continue along that path. - Bob Margolis, Ulster Publishing's Almanac


"CD Review: Chances"

"Breathtaking and original"

When greeted by a lone banjo and a high-and-lonesome Appalachian-porch voice, one might expect to settle in for a jaunt through the well-worn byways of dusty Americana. But Rosendale resident Kelleigh McKenzie’s debut CD, Chances, is one rich surprise after another; a bracing mix of earthy folk, crystalline pop, jazz dissonance, and deeply soulful foot-stomp blues. Borne upon this blend are well-wrought lyrics that veer effortlessly from social consciousness to lusty romps and sinister seductions. Many of McKenzie’s songs are peopled with characters at pivotal moments. Witness the emboldened lover in “Call It a Day” who discovers “I’m a raging flood babe and you’re the dam/You want to hold me like the lion holds the lamb.”


Producer and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Michne casts unexpected sonic situations in which McKenzie’s banjo, finger-picked guitar, Emmylou-meets-Dolly voice, and primal stomp-box can coexist with supple grooves and contrarian atonality. A prime example is the breathtaking and original “Underground,” sung through the eyes of a young girl trapped in prostitution in India. As the devastating narrative unfolds, McKenzie weaves in a shining strand of hope, which is buoyed by a sweeping, epic soundscape.

By contrast, an austere rendering of the Lennon-McCartney chestnut “Eleanor Rigby” is surprisingly effective and leads to the double-entendre scat-romp “The Bus Song” and the sensual, hilarious “Roark,” which leavens Chances and drops the listener off with a smile. Every day brings opportunities to explore, open up, and welcome something new. This CD is one of those chances. And it is well worth taking.
- Robert Burke Warren, Chronogram Magazine


Discography

"Chances" - debut album, 2009

Photos

Bio

WINNER: 2009 Independent Music Award
WINNER: 2008 Mountain Stage NewSong Contest

Armed with a banjo, guitar and amplified stompbox, Oregonian-turned-New Yorker Kelleigh McKenzie (pronounced Kelly) has a way of mixing folk, blues, old-time and rock into a music all her own. With a whimsical voice and surprising grooves, she takes the well-worn roads of Americana to unexpected places, thumping and plucking out original tales that veer effortlessly from a graceful social consciousness to lusty romps and sinister seductions. Kelleigh's acclaimed debut album Chances was released in February 2009 and her song "Gin" won the 2009 Independent Music Award (IMA) for Best Americana Song. She received two additional IMA nominations (Best Americana Album and Best Cover Song for "Eleanor Rigby") and was named a winner in last year's Mountain Stage NewSong Contest.

After years of writing and performing for a small circle of friends and fans in upstate New York, Kelleigh and her partner, musician and co-producer Jeff Michne, decided to record a few of her songs for the fun of it and to "see what would happen." They enlisted Grammy-nominated engineer/bassist Scott Petito (Rory Block, James Taylor) to record and play on the project and Dan Hickey (Rickie Lee Jones, They Might Be Giants) to add drums on a few tracks. In July of 2008 they celebrated the debut of "Chances" with a party in Woodstock, garnering accolades from local press, and then they put it up for sale online and started sending out copies to folks in the music industry.

Within six months, Kelleigh was performing on NPR's "Mountain Stage Radio Show." She was invited to showcase at the international and northeast regional Folk Alliance conferences and began opening shows for national artists including Rhett Miller, Patty Larkin, John Gorka and Maura O'Connell at some of the nation's premier listening rooms. Chances spent six months on the Americana Music Chart (getting over 2,500 spins) and was featured on numerous folk radio shows and nationally syndicated programs. Fred Mills, Managing Editor at "Blurt Magazine" wrote, "a stunning album by any measure - but as a debut it's one of those lightning-in-a-bottle affairs that we music fans live for."