If you’re lucky enough to have already caught up with Jon Richardson and Peter Donnelly, then you’ll know why we at ptownie are so in love with this act. If you haven’t yet, you’re in for a treat—they’re appearing on May 17th at the Wellfleet Preservation Hall, and this is one show you don’t want to miss.
While Donnelly and Richardson have only been performing together for a year, each of them brings considerable depth of both reflection and experience to the partnership, although Donnelly confesses he didn’t pick up a guitar until moving to Ptown when he was 29. “I came to music late,” he says, after various other careers that included welding, deep-sea diving, and a stint in the Navy. “I knew I could hold a note, but I didn’t really realize I could sing. And learning how to use your voice? That’s a lifelong process.”
Richardson, on the other hand, says that “music has always been my North Star,” starting when he first heard the Hallelujah Chorus… a few months before he was born! (His mother reported on his reaction.) He started the Suzuki method of piano when he was four, which left an imprint on his learning style: now, “if I can hear it, I can play it,” he says. He picked up the guitar in college, and while his fulltime gig is playing piano bars, he admits that when singing with someone else, “the harmonies aren’t as compelling when you’re playing the piano.”
As it did for so many people, the election of 2016 changed Richardson’s trajectory. He’d been working for an executive search agency, finding C-suite candidates for nonprofits while attending the New England Conservatory, and would probably have gone back to the agency fulltime upon graduation… but then came Trump, and Richardson changed his focus. “I knew I had to try to make beautiful things,” he says. “Music has so much power to lift people’s spirits, and it seems to me that creative people have a special responsibility. We have to mitigate this poison.” Instead of going back to the agency, he moved to Ptown.
The two met last May when Richardson was barking for his piano gig. “I wasn’t sure we’d be on the same page,” admits Donnelly, who found himself outside Tin Pan Alley, listening, and finding that “Jon was really good.” They started playing together. “The most important piece is the quality of voices together,” says Donnelly. “That’s something that’s biological.” For them, it worked. “Our voices live in a similar space,” he adds.
What’s clear in listening to them is the connection and chemistry they both comment on. The show is low-tech—two men, two guitars, two microphones—and that’s part of what makes the duo work. “There are no gimmicks around the music,” says Richardson, who admits to loving singing harmony with Donnelly’s melody. “I always want to be the Art Garfunkel,” he admits. They look for songs that have energy and humor, and that tell a story, but “the harmonies are what excite people,” Richardson says.
About half of the show is original music. “That was a surprise,” says Donnelly. “A lot of people like the covers, but when we added in the original work, that’s what the audiences commented on most. People think that’s something special.” Listening to their original pieces, it’s easy to say why, whether it’s Donnelly’s lilting cowboy-esque song about strolling down Commercial Street in the evening or Richardson’s love song to someone who is the sun, the moon, and the stars. “The originals reflect our lives, and so does the commenting in between songs,” says Donnelly, who has always loved to tell Provincetown stories as part of his sets. “There’s all this Ptown imagery in them, they’re a window into our lives.”
Both agree that what they create together is something larger than the sum of its parts. “We’re both producers,” says Donnelly. “That means Jon is there pulling half the load. I get us some bookings, he gets us some bookings. And the same goes for the music. I can bring a song to him and say, I don’t have a bridge for this one, can you help?” The harmony isn’t just in what they sing; they bring it to each other. “I don’t want to stop his flow,” says Donnelly. “I can rely on Peter,” Richardson adds. “I know I’m not in this alone.”
Richardson loves, but loves, Dolly Parton. Why? “Her songs are deceptively simple,” he says. In reality, the stories they tell are anything but simple; they speak directly to the listener’s heart. “There’s a real story in them. I love her spirit and her energy, and her songs are built for harmony. Besides, this folk duo singing Dolly—that surprises people!”
“We’re always looking for an Americana element,” says Donnelly. “Songs that are rich in the stories they tell about family, about place, about time.” They talked about adding a protest song, but “bringing up Trump, the Republicans, that kills the special energy we’re creating. It changes the dynamic,” Richardson says. Donnelly concurs. “We want to embody inclusiveness. Instead of saying what we don’t like, we say what we do.”
They’ve been rehearsing all winter, adding two songs a week to their repertoire; there’s depth and thoughtfulness in their choices and in their performances. “There’s an older audience in Ptown, people in their forties and fifties and sixties, who can relate to a lot of the music, they know all the words,” says Donnelly. Richardson adds, “and it’s all new to the younger audiences, we get to introduce them to it.” That introduction includes people like Hank Williams, Neil Young, John Prine… along with, naturally, the beloved Simon & Garfunkel.
Their favorite venue so far? “The nursing home,” they say in unison. “You see people who look tired, discouraged,” says Richardson. “And once they start hearing the music, it’s like something inside them lets go, they’re breathing more freely, their faces lighten up.” And that’s what the music is really all about. “Listen, if you can make one person happier than they were on that one day you encounter them, then it’s worth it,” says Richardson.
It’s a good way to make music. It’s a good way to move through life, too.
photo by Dan Fasman