Folking.com reviewed Barney Kenny’s EP The Minstrel Boy back in 2020, and very good it is too, with Barney supporting his own very able vocals on a variety of instruments, with additional support from Catherine Ashcroft on Uilleann pipes and whistle. His new album The Seaton Tapes (released on August 13th 2022) takes a very different approach: I can’t do better here than borrow Barney’s own words. He describes it as “A live ‘in-session’ acoustic album recorded across two days at Rapunzel Studios, Devon. Without frills, overdubs or session players, this record aims to capture the vibe of my live show in its rawest and most stripped back format, exactly as I am on stage.” And that’s what you get: Barney’s distinctive vocals over his own guitar or Weissenborn slide guitar, singing mostly his own story songs. Here’s the track list.
- I’d always assumed that the song ‘Star Of The County Down’ to be an Irish traditional song, as it uses the ‘Dives And Lazarus’ (Child 56) tune associated with many other songs – including ‘The Unquiet Grave’ (Child 78) – from various parts of the British Isles. Well, having borrowed it for one of my own songs, I suppose I should have known better: it turns out that the lyric was originally written by the Donegal-born writer Cathal McGarvey, though it has, as you might expect, spawned variants since. Barney’s version starts with a short, delicately picked instrumental intro with a suggestion of underlying drone, then accelerates into a more rhythmic interpretation of the song. It’s a little frenetic for my taste, but I’ve no doubt it gets a good reception live.
- The driving, cittern-ish style of percussive guitar backing works much better on ‘The Lighthouse’. A very nice song that suits Barney’s edgy vocals.
- For ‘Driving’ Barney brings a blues/rock sensibility to his characteristically agile slide on his Weissenborn, essentially an acoustic Hawaiian-type guitar played like a lap steel.
- ‘Twig And Turf’ combines percussive guitar with a folk-y lyric. It relates to King Æthelstan’s gift of land to the freemen of Malmesbury as a reward for defeating the Danes. Intriguing.
- ‘Nancy O” is a love song with an indefinably folky feel. Nicely done.
- ‘To Be An Englishman’ tells the tale of an English sailor too long away from home, striking a note of pride and reminiscence but avoiding any suggestion of jingoism.
- ‘Downtown’ has absolutely nothing to do with Tony Hatch’s song recorded by Petula Clark. The glissandi of the instrumental introduction, played on the Weissenborn, are reminiscent of Indian guitar music, especially with the underlying hint of a drone effect a little like the chikari of the Indian guitar. Very attractive. After less than a minute, however, the theme changes abruptly to something more like a John Lee Hooker boogie with a dash of Canned Heat. Barney has a good voice for this blues-y material: the lyric has the traditional, melodramatic theme of a young life ruined by gunplay.
- ‘Hollow Lands’ slows the pace right down with some delicate modal guitar, again with more than a hint of the East, and a fascinating lyric.
- ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is the Dylan song, played on the Weissenborn. While it seems a little odd for someone of my era to hear this without Jimi’s Strat pyrotechnics, it suits Barney’s voice very well (better than it did Dylan’s, in my opinion!)
- As with some of the other songs here, ‘She Moves’ has a slightly 60s-70s feel, reminding me a little of early Michael Chapman or Roy Harper in its pushing the percussive and rhythmic potential of the acoustic guitar. And that’s absolutely not a criticism.
- ‘Cousin Jack’ is the Steve Knightley classic. Though Knightley is not a Cornishman himself, the song captures with pitiless accuracy the Cornish diaspora and its aftermath, and Barney’s version does it full justice.
It is, I suppose, fairly unusual now to find a singer-songwriter album that recreates a live solo set without the ambience of a live audience. Yet Barney Kenny has succeeded in generating something approaching the excitement of a live gig with just his own excellent guitar playing and vocal put to good use on some very interesting songs. I look forward to his next visit to the studio. Meanwhile, here is our review of his earlier EP.
Artist’s website: barneykenny.bandcamp.com/
‘Driving’ – live (love that Weissenborn):