Like Brigadoon on the beach, the Capri Fish House becomes a thatch-roofed time machine when Rod Mackenzie performs. With just a guitar, his voice and a restless night sky, he plays music spanning many eras; some current, many long past, others long, long past.
Except for the occasional chirp of a cell phone, Mackenzie creates an atmosphere where the music takes on a life of its own. So, when Mackenzie plays Neil Young, you are transported back to the 1970s.
Rather than trying to mimic the style and vocal quality of prior artists, he sings with his own generous range, drawing upon all the Celtic angst in his soul to recreate the emotions, protests or afflictions of whatever generation birthed the song.
Although he plays a number of styles, his prefers folk music or folk rock. He is naturally drawn to protest or anti-establishment type of songs that were common in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Mackenzie describes it as “Music by the people, for the people.”
Mackenzie was born in Inverness, in the highlands of Scotland. He mostly grew up in Yorkshire, England and claims, “There, I got into the folk circuit.”
Despite no formal musical education, he consistently clings to his own original choices, in music and in life, describing his life as “swimming upstream.”
He always wanted to play music, while his family had more conventional wishes for his future. “I went to college, got the degree and came home and gave it to my father. I left three days later,” he says, explaining how he got his start in folk music despite holding a degree in chemical engineering.
During his childhood, music in England was transforming and it was an electrifying time. Skiffle, a musical form based on American Appalachian folk music and British R&B were the musical mainstay of the time. Folk (or roots) music had experienced a revival, as did the subcultures that nourished them. Rock ‘n’ roll was still in an embryonic state, ready to burst on the scene with the “British Invasion” of the late ‘60s. Groups like the Moody Blues, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and the Animals were ready to take over and reshape what youths were listening to the world over.
With such a musical culture at his fingertips, it is no wonder that he had a life-altering experience in 1968. Mackenzie wandered into a club, smitten by a three-piece band he heard. It was the legendary Jimi Hendrix, playing in Kirk Leavington Country Club in North Yorkshire.
Mackenzie began his musical career in that wildly innovative environment. He eventually found his way to New York and continued drifting southward until reaching Florida.
His choice of songs is interesting. He has a simple method to discern which songs to add to his repertoire. “Every song I sing, I like,” he says.
And, if there’s a bit of anguish, angst, wanderlust or whimsy, all the better.
He’s very egalitarian in those choices, saying, “If I like a song, I’ll learn it. I don’t care who does it.” He’ll play anything from early Neil Young to Bob Marley and whatever falls in between if it suits his fancy. That’s why he sings every song with a sense of ownership, as though he wrote it himself.
His varied cache of preferred music also includes songs that have not been heard much on this side of the pond, including those written by Graeme Miles, a London folk songwriter from the ‘50s and ‘60s, whose music is described as both eclectic and arduous.
“I like the irony of folk music,” Mackenzie says. He also appreciates a song that reeks of universality; containing themes and life events that everyone has experienced. He admires Bob Dylan, and feels that Dylan put a voice to the indistinct feelings of the population. “He made everybody realize they were ticked off and angry,” he explains.
His vocal quality is largely appealing, never pushed to the limit, but robust and lithe. Never mimicking others, he sings in his own way, which is wholly appropriate for the genre of music he prefers.
As a unique treat, Mackenzie recently appeared with longtime pal and fellow guitarist Shawn Duncan, in town for only a week. Duncan hails from New Jersey, and together they sing and harmonize like a pair of well-worn shoes.
Playing beneath a giant, mounted swordfish at the Capri Fish House, the two play songs with gentle harmonies, or boisterous ones. They performed Jimmy Buffet’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” and Neil Young’s “Old Man,” both songs pensive and touched with wanderlust. Interspersed with those songs familiar to most, are others from eras past or from other parts of the world; unusual choices, but pleasing to those who would enjoy MacKenzie’s style.
During the performance in the diminutive chickee hut, Mackenzie banters with the customers, sometimes becoming a sort of reverse heckling, but all in good fun. Whenever the audience contains some fellow Britons, Mackenzie immediately builds a rapport, holding both entertainer and entertained enthralled for the evening.
Graham Brogden and his wife Jan, from Oxford, England, stumbled upon Mackenzie’s performance while out to enjoy the local fare recently. “I like this music,” Graham says, and no doubt, the vacation will include another visit to the Capri, having discovered that they hail from close to the same area as Mackenzie.
Mackenzie has been at the Capri Fish House going on four years, and also appears at the Little Bar in Goodland. He has a 14-year-old daughter, who he claims, sings better than anyone he’s ever heard. Criticized by a teacher for being too loud, she no longer wants to sing and it makes her dad angry. With the talent she inherited from her father, she probably won’t be able to remain musically mute for long.
Makenzie has other hobbies, too. “I like fishing, boating. I like making people laugh. I like embarrassing people in pink shirts,” he adds, giving a sideways glance to a pal at the bar who is wearing a rosy-colored, collared shirt.
He has a style that is true to the spirit of the generations that germinated the songs he sings. His performance will strike a wistful chord among many who — whether or not they remember the song — will remember what it was like to believe that they were going to change the world.
If You Go...
Capri Fish House Restaurant
Monday through Thursday
6 to 9 p.m.
203 Capri Blvd., Isles of Capri