Hailing from Newfoundland, the deep-voiced Byrne stands in the classic tradition of Canadian folk singers such as Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson, his third album sure to spread his name far beyond his native shores.
Unlike those mentioned, Byrne is predominantly an interpreter of traditional song, opening here with the musically uptempo if lyrically downcast ‘Long Years Ago’, featuring tenor banjo, accordion and upright bass, a British sea song in which a bride bewails the drowning of her lover, learned from a recording by his nan, but also to be found on Shirley Collins’ 1960 album A Pinch of Salt.
A nautical theme flows through the album, moving from the sea to inland with ‘The River Driver’, a traditional number both about originating with the Newfoundland loggers, and, striking another working journey, the Celtic-tinged shantyish sailor’s lament ‘Go To Sea No More’, though, written by Con O’Brien and Ronnie Power from The Irish Descendents, this only dates back to the early 90s.
Staying in Ireland, ‘Sarah Jane’, a song of unrequited love, features just Byrne on guitar and mandolin, while, sung unaccompanied, ‘The Woods of Truagh’ is a happy ending love song set against the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1660s.
Returning to sea, the moodily arranged ‘Nancy From London’, featuring Paul Kinsman on keys and Josh Ward on upright bass, is another traditional number from the perspective of a sailor’s wife waiting for her man’s return. Yet another maritime song, slow waltzing whaling ballad ‘Farewell To Tarwathie’ has been much covered, and, with Aaron Cullis on button accordion and Scott Ring on low whistle can hold its head high among the most illustrious company.
The first of the album’s two self-penned numbers, ‘The Wedding Waltz’ is a slow swaying instrumental built around Emilia Bartellas’ fiddle and Craig Young on dobro and written for the first dance of his own wedding. The other also has a personal connection, the simple fingerpicked ‘Adelaide’ a narrative sung in the voice of one Donald Black, a former sailor who, in 1990, had written a letter to a local newspaper asking after Adelaide Byrne, a young woman with whom he’d struck up a romance when he was in harbour in St. Johns back in 1947, but with whom he later lost touch. The lady in question turned out to be the sister of Byrne’s father, Joe, who had died of tuberculosis in 1949, hence the lack of any further letters. On a particularly poignant note, as a thank you to Joe for responding, he sent the pendant Adelaide had given him reading ‘think of me’.
Joe actually makes an appearance on the album, singing and playing guitar on one of his own favourite songs, ‘Kitty Bawn O’Brien’, a lost love carousel waltzer with the singer lamenting how the aforementioned Kitty’s left Co. Tipperary to sail for Montreal, written by Nova Scotia folk singer and music historian Allister MacGillivray. Dad’s also the source of the final number, who in turn learned it from Byrne’s great uncle, one last venture out to sea for the a cappella ‘Jim Harris’, the tale of an unfortunate mishap when, in May 1934, Captain Harris mistakenly turned the wheel of his ship, the Ronald, the wrong way during a storm and ran down the Irene, a ship anchored in Paradise Sound.
He’s apparently touring the UK later in the year, on the evidence here those shows should be well worth catching.
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Artist’s website: www.matthewbyrne.net
‘Nancy From London’ – live: