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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Music for May Concert Series: James McKenna

I don’t know whose idea it was to hold the “Music for May” concert series out on the university plaza (that odd sunken-parking-lot-looking no man’s land in front of the library), but they may want to rethink this one. Perhaps by the time the next performance rolls around it’ll be nice enough to party out there, but last Wednesday it was a god-forsaken concrete tundra: windy like you wouldn’t believe. A few brave souls stopped for a listen during James McKenna’s set, but the weather was just too much-the audience was simply blown away on the wind. It was too bad really, because if McKenna and his band had been able to set up someplace else (say, that congenial area between McCormack Building and Wheatley Building, where students have actually been known to congregate from time to time), they probably could have drawn a decent crowd.

James McKenna has been a music major at UMass Boston for almost three years now, but his experience with music goes much further back. In 1994, McKenna was in the Navy and he was placed into the boot-camp chorus. He had grown up listening to rap and R&B, and was a bit of a latecomer to the world of rock n’ roll. After leaving the Navy in 1998, he picked up the guitar and began to write songs. McKenna brings an R&B element into the pop-rock genre; not surprisingly, he cites Otis Redding and Sam Cooke among his influences, as well as more modern bands such as Matchbox 20. He has been playing out at various venues around Boston for over two years; currently he plays Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons at Sissy K’s near Fanuiel Hall and Friday nights at The Place on Broad St.

McKenna makes the kind of pop that thrives in the mainstream college radio community: think Dave Matthews and Counting Crows- folky, but still danceable. In a better venue, I think a lot of students would have enjoyed this music. It’s not really my scene, but I’ll admit I was tapping my feet. It’s catchy stuff.

Centered around McKenna’s peppy, soul-tinged melodies and filled out with his bright acoustic guitar strum, the songs roll along good-naturedly, keeping up that casual Friday-night-with-friends feel even when the lyrics (which reveal an intelligence lacking in a lot of standard pop fare) threaten to turn serious. My one complaint is that the music seems a little too…safe. It’s often very pretty, but sometimes a bit too polite. The craft and skill is there, but the songs could benefit from a willingness to experiment with dynamics a bit, to take some chances. When they do take chances, as in “Girl on the Morning Train” where McKenna brings back the lost art of the four-part harmony, the songs are capable of producing moments of pure pop magic that make one smile with satisfaction.

That the band sounded as smooth as they did is much to their credit. The band (which consisted of McKenna and a backing group of players whom McKenna gathered together from his acquaintances in the gig-playing circuit) had never played together before. It hardly showed. The band was tight throughout the set, and if the rhythm section seemed a little less than energetic, they very nearly made up for it with their consummate professionalism.

McKenna made a first-rate front man, looking the part of young popster in blue jeans and black T-shirt, joking about the lack of a crowd and the weather. He was in good spirits and that seemed to buoy up the general positivity of the songs. McKenna’s voice is well suited to this kind of music. Not only is it strong and steady, it has that touch of scruffiness that is essential to the pop-soul sound.

All in all, the band put on a respectable show. Fine playing, good attitude, poppy sounds. It’s just a shame that no one showed up to hear it. Hopefully, if McKenna and friends show up to play again sometime, they’ll get a better spot. I think they might like to play for more people, and I think that more people might like to hear them.