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Backstage in South Florida: Jennings and Keller and Good Folk at Home

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week: Jennings, Keller and other members of the folk faithful.

I admit that I never really think of South Florida as a harbinger of folk music. Granted, there's an active South Florida Folk Festival and a Broward Folk Alliance. Not to mention, there are a handful of venues that foster music of the genre, like O'Connor's in Delray Beach, Labrynth Cafe in Fort Laduerdale, Paddy Mac's in Palm Beach Gardens, Luna Star Café in North Miami, and John Martin's in Coral Gables. And likewise, Michael Stock's long-running radio show on WLRN has been a leading proponent in terms of promoting traditional and Americana music in these realms. So, I certainly don't negate the efforts of those who push acoustic music to the fore. But with the predominance of rock, rap, and third world rhythms, it feels to me like folk doesn't really seem to fit in around here.

That said, I've always had the utmost admiration for folk performers that make every effort to persist, despite an audience that's marginal at best. Grant Livingston and Amy Carol Webb come immediately to mind, for instance. Each of the erstwhile artists have become enduring icons as far as the local folk community is concerned. This is beccause of live appearances and also recordings that define their specialized stance.

Delray's Rod MacDonald has also attempted to show that South Florida can be a fertile area for folk enthusiasts, somehow managing to find enough local gigs -- both under his own auspices and in the guise of his Dylan tribute band Big Brass Band -- to fill his dance card any given week of the year. That's all the more impressive considering the fact that MacDonald was a formidable singer and songwriter in New York's seminal Greenwich Village scene prior to migrating south. The fact that his career still appears healthy could be deemed a credit to his perseverance.

Likewise, a handful of other nationally known artists also opted to call our area home, among them Dion DiMucci, a rock 'n' roll pioneer whose 1968 hit "Abraham, Martin and John" established his folk finesse, and Bob Lind, who had his own hit the song "Elusive Butterfly," and launched his long-awaited return to performing right here in our own backyard.

My personal kudos go to Jennings and Keller, a talented duo whose individual areas of expertise have well prepared them for their current role of traveling troubadours. Laurie Jennings Oudin embarked on an acting career prior to switching gears and becoming the amiable owner and hostess of Homestead's Main Street Café -- still the best venue for nationally known acoustic artists in South Florida. Sadly, Main Street Café had a hard time persevering with its limited number of devoted patrons, and despite Laurie and crew's success in attracting A-list headliners, the café was shuttered several years ago. Still, those that regularly witnessed Laurie at the helm of the house band weren't surprised at all when she opted to team with Dana Keller, a seasoned session player with a star-studded resume (he made tunes with Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Stevie Wonder, Larry Graham, Marvin Gaye, Dave Mason, Johnny Rodriguez). Dubbing their sound "fusion folk," the two reinvented themselves as Jennings and Keller.

Jennings and Keller have just released their third album, Mirror With a Memory, a lovely and enticing twelve song set that spotlights both their songwriting prowess and supple, skillful delivery. It also shows that their confidence and competence has grown by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by such tender tapestries as "If I Had a Daughter," the touching title track, the socially pointed "I Am a Number," and the vivid "Goodbye California," a song that Judy Collins would be wise to borrow and reconfigure as her own.

In fact, the entire album holds together as an aural travelogue, taking its cue from the lead-off track, "Somethin' 'Bout Texas," a veritable love letter to the Lone Star State as inspired by, they say, "barbecue, margaritas at the Blue Mesa (and) Ray Wylie Hubbard on the radio..." A cover of Cher's big hit "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" may seem a somewhat unlikely choice at first, especially given their downhome stance, but it works remarkably well, a credit to both Jennings' vocal clarity and Keller's instrumental dexterity.

That the album should cover so much terrain -- physical, allegorical, and otherwise -- comes as no surprise considering that the duo manage to spend a major part of the year on the road playing everything from house concerts to major festivals and a variety of venues in-between. Consequently, when they return home to Homestead in October, it would be an advantageous time to catch them in concert.

I know I will, and I'll be super psyched to wave my folk flag high. Once I dust it off, that is.

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Lee Zimmerman

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