After several decades of touring and the release of eight critically acclaimed albums of original folk-oriented music, Canada’s Ken Dunn is certainly a contender for the ‘old folksinger’ moniker, having distilled disparate life experiences into a unique and proficient set of musical skills he is most obviously passionate about sharing.
If you are already familiar with Ken’s compelling songs and stories, been to one of his many concerts, heard him on your favourite folk radio programme, watched his videos on YouTube, streamed his music on Spotify, and/or purchased one of his CDs on iTunes, then much of what follows will be of little surprise. However, if Ken Dunn’s music is new to you, strap on your reading glasses and headphones. Be prepared to know and love more…
In his review of Ken’s 2017 Wondrous Beauty album, veteran music critic John Apice writing for the American Journal of Roots Music, No Depression remarked that Ken’s music “sneaks into your feet, heart, and soul”. Indeed, Ken’s music creates an immediate connection with the listener, characterized by a sense of comfort and familiarity. It is from this vantage point that we are encouraged to gently leave our comfort zones and explore some of life’s more difficult challenges. In describing a recent 2019 festival appearance, Arwen MacDonald, Artistic Director of British Columbia’s Rogue Festival notes that “Ken Dunn's sound is like his performance - thoughtful, provocative, and embracing in a uniquely comfortable, almost familiar way”. Again, Ken’s experience in this regard was noted as far back as 1994 when the UK’s fRoots Magazine described his Winds of Emotion CD as “highly evocative and intriguing”.
Furthermore, Ken’s focus on the role that music can play in promoting social and environmental justice is reflected in lyrics which music blogger Tom Arvidsson at Sweden’s Thirsty Boots characterized as “spreading hope and a stubborn belief in humanity, despite the darkness around” in 2018. This dedication is also reflected in the many concerts Ken performs for charitable organizations throughout Canada and the United States, including annual concerts for the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and his recent 2018 benefit concert for LA Family Housing which resulted in the release of his last CD, Live in LA.
Although born in Canada, Ken’s Irish roots are apparent in a sound which has been described as “contemporary folk music based on traditional and Celtic influences" by Keys & Chords in Belgium when reviewing Ken’s 2016 album The Great Unknown. Then again, No Depression noted a similarity “to the stylings of folk legends like John Prine, Tom Rush and Tom Paxton” on 2017’s Wondrous Beauty, and as far back as 1996, Canada’s CHART Magazine portrayed Ken’s Precious Life album as “the folk tradition with integrity and sincerity”. So, the consensus would seem to be contemporary folk for sure, but with definite traditional, and in fact, Celtic influences.
So, lyrics and genre aside, how do we describe Ken’s sound, and what should we expect in terms of musicianship? Dublin, Ireland’s R2 Magazine (formerly known as Rock n’ Reel) noted Ken’s “strong, distinctive vocals” on 2000’s Time and Space CD. During that period, Germany’s Roots Time compared his vocal style to that of “Neil Young”. However, it is safe to say Ken’s voice has dropped an octave since then, gently seasoned by time, experience, and maturity!
A perennial student of the acoustic guitar, Ken’s finger style approach to the instrument has been described as “accomplished and unique” by renowned Spanish-Canadian guitarist and composer Jorge Miguel, Canadian Folk Music Awards 2013 World Solo Artist of the Year. Again, reviewer Tom Arvidsson of Sweden’s Thirsty Boots, describes Ken’s solo guitar playing on 2019’s Live in L.A. CD as “really honest music, played with a true nerve and pure quality”.
But don’t leave quite yet… There are several more unique qualities which make a Ken Dunn concert more than just a collection of words and music, by yet another singer/songwriter armed with great songs, a guitar and some fancy chops. Ken creates rapport, and engages his audience in a relationship building exercise characterized by healing, empathy, compassion, love, gratitude, inclusivity, respect for diversity and community building through the creation of safe space. These qualities can, at least in part be attributed to his experience and skill as a clinical psychologist, university professor, poet, yoga teacher, artist, and workshop leader. As Recreation Therapist, Amanda Kidnie noted after Ken’s recent 2019 Art Beat Concert for Folk Music Ontario “Ken really understands the healing effects that music can have, especially when people are recovering from an illness. His soothing voice and positive lyrics were uplifting and encouraging for our patients”.
If all this seems just a bit too serious, be reassured that Ken is a natural story teller with a disarming sense of humour, who creates a narrative akin to a musical play in his performances. Martha Renaud at Canada’s Windsor Folk described a recent 2019 performance as "soulful and poignant, thought-provoking and just plain fun, Ken Dunn had the audience singing along and loving him and his music”. Indeed, audience participation is an important component of Ken’s shows which create a world populated by characters and places both real and imagined. From the ghost of Joni Mitchell “riding out to sea on the very last Orca” in the soon to be released Song For Joni, to our transformation as beings of light destined for the star Antares in Farewell to the Cages, we are treated and challenged by visions of the past, present, and future. From the angels watching over hospital patients in Cross of Lorraine to the Mermaid of Avila roaming the ocean near a California beach town we are encouraged to encounter, confront, and ultimately be comforted by our own Wondrous Beauty.
And, if you a talent buyer and are not yet totally convinced to book Ken, or a potential fan wondering if you should buy a ticket to a show, or purchase a CD on iTunes… there is, what Jan Hall of Canada’s Folk Roots Radio calls “the icing on the cake” - Anna Green, Ken’s musical and life partner who you will hear on his CDs and who often accompanies him on tour (when she is not busy with her own careers as an artist, yoga teacher, mother, and grandmother!) Although Ken is an accomplished solo artist, it is obvious that when Anna takes to the stage, we are witnessing much more than just a musical collaboration featuring what John Morand at Canada’s Bank Theatre notes are “Anna's beautiful harmony vocals and accompaniment on keyboard adding an ethereal vibe”. This is a partnership forged in the cauldron of love, tempered by time, fuelled by unmistakable chemistry, and a rare gift for fortunate audiences. Just ask for the dynamic duo… we might just all get lucky!
So, how experienced is Ken in regards to performing? Well, he started off living his dream, busking in Toronto during the 1970’s during the “folk revival” of that time! He had a chance to meet one of his idols, Bruce Cockburn and perform in a jam at the first Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974. But it really wasn’t until the 1990’s that his music career began to develop in earnest. A chance encounter in Belize (of all places) resulted in meeting and sharing the stage with the Mr. Bo Jangles himself, Jerry Jeff Walker, and the 90’s saw him perform hundreds of shows across Canada, with the occasional foray into the U.S. One highlight for sure was performing at The Festival of Friends in Hamilton, Ontario with Willie P. Bennett and Garnet Rogers where the (late) artistic director, Bill Powell praised Ken’s performance as “providing fresh insight into human complexities”. Years later, Valdy’s focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle while on the road had a huge positive impact on Ken when the two met while performing at the Trout Forest Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Over the past several years, Ken has lived and toured in California and British Columbia, often traveling via camper van with Anna and their Bichon Frisé, Louie. During this time, he has had the distinct pleasure of performing and showcasing with a whole new and inspiring generation of young Canadian folk performers including Benjamin Dakota Rogers, Annie Sumi, Madeleine Roger, Logan McKillop, Piper and Carson, Moonfruits, Graham Lindsay, and many others, too numerous to mention.
On the recording side, Ken has written and recorded eight full length albums of original, folk-oriented music, which have received critical acclaim, awards, and extensive airplay on folk radio around the world. Most recently, 2017’s Wondrous Beauty debuted in the Top 10 Canadian albums on the Folk DJ-L Charts, and 2019’s Live in L.A. was one of the Top 30 albums worldwide on the RMR Folk Charts. 2016’s The Great Unknown won Best Americana honours at the Akademia Music Awards in Los Angeles and was named one of 2016’s Best by Jan Hall’s Folk Roots Radio. Some of the musicians featured on Ken’s recordings include Dennis Pendrith (bass player for Tom Paxton, and Bruce Cockburn), Dean Drouillard (guitar for Jill Barber), Mark Mariash (drums and percussion for Buffy Sainte Marie), Randall Hill, Roly Platt, and Ben Grossman.