Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from Show Of Hands, a band that is one of the most recognized Folk acts of the 21st Century. So much so I’m writing this review with some trepidation as I only became aware of them when they toured their last album with the wonderful Megan Henwood (who I’d really gone to see!!) in 2016.
With eight new original songs from Steve Knightly, this thirteen track album doesn’t disappoint. Regular Show Of Hands gig goers will be familiar with many of them as they have been ‘road tested’ by the band either at solo gigs or together as band. An example being the Cornish reggae ‘Dreckley’ which Steve performed at Towersey (which has become a bit of an earworm and is now in my head all the time).
As well as Cornish reggae, there are other diverse sounds such as the Eastern feel to ‘Mother Tongue’, a really full sounding track which rolls along at a steady pace and has a haunting feel to it.
This album has a fourth member with Cormac Byrne (who toured with them last autumn) adding percussion to Miranda Sykes double bass, and Phil and Steve’s multi instrument contributions. There are also contributions on keyboards from Matt Clifford.
The album includes the Kirsty Merryn song ‘Forfarshire’ on which Steve sang on her album She And I, this version has Miranda joining Steve on vocals and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s album, on a collection of instruments from mandolin to percussion. Miranda also takes the lead vocal on ‘Make The Right Noises’.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’, is given great treatment by the band and although I don’t know the original I suspect this is a much jauntier version. Phil’s vocals come to the fore on Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’, another song I remember from live shows and Adrian Mannering’s ‘My True Love’.
The album flows well though the title track ‘Battlefield Dance Floor’, despite its clever lyrics with historical references it didn’t pass the car journey test with my better half, but it stays on when I’m in the car alone! So this is a great listen, but to get the full Show Of Hands effect go and see them live as they are consummate storytellers, entertainers and musicians and you’ll have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
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With its arresting cover of a felled marionette, Battlefield Dance Floor is the 18th studio album from one of the most prized acts on the folk roots circuit.
Show of Hands’ first key release in more than three years, the 13-track album brings eight keenly awaited new songs (and a co-write) from the pen of Steve Knightley, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most inspired and original songwriters.
Phil Beer is the ‘master decorator’ of the songs – a brilliant, consummate multi-instrumentalist while long term third member Miranda Sykes is back on board with her eloquent double bass and vocals after her sabbatical – and Cormac Byrne and his feted percussion skills (witnessed on last autumn’s UK tour) bring a vibrant fresh dimension to the party.
Rolling Stones collaborator Matt Clifford adds his keyboard skills to some tracks and an impromptu collective known as The Bridge Hill Shanty Men are the icing on the cake, weighing in with rousing choruses.
Possibly their most commercial release to date, Battlefield Dance Floor is an exuberant, lush, full-blooded album co-produced by the in-demand Mark Tucker and Knightley – Show of Hands’ first release since 2016’s The Long Way Home.
An album of broad brushstrokes, it mixes songs of despair and displacement, emphatic songs, tongue-in-cheek songs, poignant songs and carefully chosen covers into a classic Show of Hands package with wide appeal.
Knightley is a highly talented songwriter who has a great knack in addressing serious and pertinent issues with really catchy lyrics. Top class performances are guaranteed wherever they play” – Songlines
It bursts straight in with Knightley’s ‘Lost’ – a slickly produced, multi-layered and poetic opener – on the surface a number inspired by the story of doomed Devon sailor Donald Crowhurst who died while competing in the 1968 single-handed, round the world Golden Globe Race –but with a deeper theme summed up by Knightley as “a maritime-themed song about masculine despair.”
Catching the listener unawares the mood swerves abruptly to the upbeat, jaunty, genre-hopping title track as Bhangra meets Morris, a seed sown by Show of Hands’ recent close encounters with Johnny Kalsi’s The Dhol Foundation.
Politics and history graduate Knightley name checks some of the greats in history (Wellington, Drake, Churchill, Monty) in this savvy song of eve-of-battle drunkenness with its catchy rugby chant style chorus. Juxtaposing battle readiness with pre-battle abandon it travels through time from the Battle of Agincourt to D-Day and is littered with clever lyrics: “It’s a ballet not a battle/A salsa not a siege” and its ‘Tomorrow it’s a battlefield/tonight it is a dance floor” refrain.
A trademark Knightley song is shaped in the sublime ‘Just Enough To Lose’ – a poignant tale of failing love delivered by his distinctive voice. “It was just between the sowing and the reaping /You told me our crop was bound to fail’, the regret underlined by Beer’s beautifully judged fiddle and Clifford’s keyboards.
Some years ago Show of Hands joined forces with exiled Chilean musicians to form the band Alianza so the theme of displacement is one well known to them and here it is explored in the Knightley-Johnny Kalsi co-write ‘Mother Tongue’, a stand-out track on the album penned soon after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The atmosphere-charged song is given a haunting, spiritual edge by the enigmatic chanting of British-Asian performer Shahid Khan.
There are songs with a lighter touch – the percussive, tongue in cheek ‘Cornish reggae’ of ‘Dreckley’, the tale of a Home Counties relationship threatened by the lure of the West Country replete with pasties and Poldark! It even includes a nod to The Great British Scone Debate – clotted cream or jam first on your Devonshire scone?!
Sykes takes lead vocal on the wry Knightley original ‘Make The Right Noises’, a cynical look at how we fake concern and enthusiasm because we think we should – concluding that ‘of the virtues sincerity is the most underrated’.
It’s over to Beer to take centre stage on a cover of Richard Shindell’s ‘Next Best Western’ – a gem of a road song which suits his voice – and flawless guitar work– perfectly while he also takes the microphone to deliver ‘My True Love’ – a gentle ballad written by Dubliner Adrian Mannering who Steve and Phil encountered on the Brighton folk scene back in their 20s.
‘You’ll Get By’ is a song of hope and reassurance for the older generation facing the array of life’s ups and downs (not just the province of the young!) and drums roll as ‘Swift And Bold’ marches in. A Knightley song written for 6 Rifles Infantry Regiment at a special celebratory concert at their Exeter HQ – at which to his surprise he was made an Honorary Rifleman – brings the battlefield back into view, with the Bridge Hill Shanty Men in full flow. Named after the regimental motto it’s a song which Steve was proud to write.
He says: “Being awarded the title of Honorary Rifleman meant I joined my grandfather and step brother in re-establishing a close relationship with the regiment.”
Steve also revisits a haunting song he first sang on Kirsty Merryn’s debut album She And I.
Merryn’s spellbinding ‘Forfarshire’ tells of lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling and her father William and Grace’s heroic rescue of shipwrecked mariners. In this version Steve is joined by Miranda and Gerry Diver, who produced Kirsty’s 2017 release. A useful man to know Gerry also plays myriad instruments on the track – mandolin, piano, fiddle, bass guitar, tenor guitar and percussion.
The album ends with ‘No Secrets’, released as a single to coincide with Show of Hands’ incredible fifth sell out of the Royal Albert Hall in 2017, celebrating 25 years of this unique band. Upbeat and breezy Steve describes it as a distillation of some sage advice given to a fellow folky on his wedding eve.
A classy cornucopia, it’s an album that successfully melds vintage Show of Hands and brand new material, infusing influences old and new and this time – as a four strong band – with even greater depth and panache.
Says Steve: “With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we’ve dreamed of making for twenty five years!”
The music is sharp and the armoury is strong. Battlefield Dance Floor reinvigorates Show of Hands’ unshakeable position at the front line of folk.
Show of Hands will showcase songs from Battlefield Dance Floor on a 22-date autumn-winter tour of England and Wales (October 30-December 7). The album will be officially released on September 27, 2019 under licence to Proper Music Publishing and will be distributed by Proper Records.
Steve Knightley has said “Show of Hands is still a duo consisting of Steve and Phil. Miranda and Cormac have solo careers in their own right and whenever they join us they are always name checked as such! We are absolutely delighted to have them on board for this year’s Autumn tour and next year’s festival season.”
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A few months ago I reviewed the Dodo Street Band CD, Natural Selection, and thought it was pretty good (read Mike’s review here). They didn’t have many gigs planned, but one was fairly near to me so booked the date in my diary.
People talk about going out for the evening to the theatre and mention the whole evening – maybe a meal beforehand, meeting up with friends, the expectation of maybe a London theatre, etc etc. With music, people I know tend to talk about the gig, not the whole event. So this is another occasional live review with a broader slant.
Generally, when I book something in advance, there’s more than a hint of excitement. This was certainly the case with gigs as diverse as, say, seeing the Rolling Stones in Roundhay Park in 1981, taking a friend for his sixtieth birthday to a stadium a few years ago to see The Who – but also things like seeing June Tabor live for the first time in a theatre in Scunthorpe (“a voice as smooth as a pint of Guinness” was a remark I overheard) or going to see a mate’s band play their first ever gig in a dodgy pub. But then, some days, other things just get in the way – and this was one of them. As the day approached I discovered I was working away, getting back home the night of the Dodo Street Band gig.
So on a Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago, I find myself driving after some long days away and hotel-bed-limited-sleep to a concert. The gig is in Worksop college, geographically about half an hour’s drive from where I grew up but in other ways, a couple of light years away from the factory towns, rural and pit villages where I used to play cricket. (I mention this simply because about the only thing I thought I knew about Worksop College was that Joe Root smashed to smithereens most of the cricketing records there.) Generally, my venue of choice to watch music is some kind of club/pub, – in the old days with dark walls, sticky floors, smoke and alcohol. I get the feeling I’m not going to be visiting that kind of place……
And it’s not, but it’s rather splendid. Easy to get to, easy to park, students politely pointing me in the right direction – past the cricket pitch on the right – and into the main building. Given work and the drive, I’m feeling too tired to be in the right place mentally for music. But the setting is pretty good, the room light and airy (and hence a long way from places like Sheffield’s Leadmill or Boston’s Axe and Cleaver where I used to watch my music) is fine and with great sound. The college also they fed us canapés and gave us a free drink at half time. My mental rehabilitation was getting fixed, partly because I was being well looked after.
And the gig? Sometimes you’re just glad you ignored the tiredness because you’ve been to see something unique. This was one of them. The band live are stunning as they trade tunes between fiddle, recorder, accordion, double bass – and in Cormac Byrne they have what I can only describe as a lead bodhran player. Like a live jazz band players sit bits out, they watch their fellow band members take the lead, they mingle the combinations of instruments in different ways so the sound varies – but what never varies is the skill and entertainment value. The humour of the Dodo Street Band’s website is translated onto the stage through entertaining introductions: the Dodo flying machine, for example – the Wright Brothers weren’t the first to create a flying machine, it was the escaping dodos.
What we saw that evening was the band members bringing to exuberant life the skills on the album….plus a bit. The skill of Adam Summerhayes’ fiddle playing being not only in the fingers moving fluidly, but in the way he manages – just – not to poke his colleagues eyes with the dancing bow; as well as bodhran, Cormac Byrne played spoons, bones and members of the audience – anything that could make a percussive sound; Piers Adams had a collection of recorders in what looked like a builders tool belt, switched expertly between them and even played two simultaneously (picture above); Malcolm Creese held the rhythm and played bass solo – and had the most deadpan introductory line – for the first tune in a set “which is called […pause…] ‘Tune Number One”; and a particular mention not just for Murray Grainger’s piano accordion playing but his focus as his young family wanted to join him on stage. They describe their instrumental prowess as playing: Scrapes, Bangs, Blows, Twangs and Bellows.
And Worksop College? A cracking setting, the concert room and the mix were both good, but I also have the unique memories of the rather grand hall where we had interval drinks and the cheery helpfulness of the students. There was also a fascinating conversation with the person who organised it all. I discovered that this gig was one in a series of musical events which Worksop College put on and which they open up to anyone who wants to come. The College seems to have a strong musical curriculum and, to my mind, the staging of music events of all genres and opening them up to the community is a great idea.
Lastly, Natural Selection, the Dodo Street Band’s album was good to listen to, but the live evening got me going, even after the drive and the start to the week I’d had. The evening as a whole? A highly talented – and fun – band in a great location. The venue and the band, then – both of them worth writing home about.
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Dodo Street released Natural Selection, their first CD, on April 5th. The band are touring to four venues in June and a festival in July, details on their website. I put this at the start of the review because the only way you can get a feel for how gloriously skilled, inventive and fun this album is – is to listen to it or, I’d imagine, see them live.
As a taster, have a listen to ‘Larking’ on the video below – the sheer energy of the playing, the tightness of it at a million miles an hour and then, at twenty-eight seconds and elsewhere, the stop and the coo-coo call (Wikipedia tells me that the dodo is related to the pigeon) followed by a return to the vitality of the tune. There are slower pieces of which ‘Neil Gow’s Lament’ is a highlight, but the video gives a sense of what the album as a whole is like – and fortunately one of their upcoming gigs is near to me.
Dodo Street consists of five musicians. It would be a much longer piece to describe the background of the musicians in any way other than to quote from their publicity material. The band combine “unbelievable fiddle virtuosity from international star Adam Summerhayes; outrageous brilliance from world number one recorder genius, Piers Adams; incredibly high-ABV insanity from accordion master, Murray Grainger; positively feverish power from bass legend, Malcolm Creese; and dazzling bodhran playing from king of folk percussion, Cormac Byrne”. Any one of the five has a musical pedigree that you can only admire, collectively they work superbly together and it makes for a stunning sound (which they call Celtic Gypsy Klezmer) melding Scottish/Irish folk, gypsy and Eastern European tunes and rhythms.
The other aspect to mention is the humour. The album tracks are titled in some way to give a link to the dodo. To give a couple of examples: ‘Flight Of The Dodo’ is described as “Commemorating the invention of a mechanical flying machine by dodos in 1803 (and the subsequent suppression of the fact by humans)”; and Track 8 is called ‘ Historic 1632 recording of Dodo calls (Courtesy of the descendants of Midshipman Alex Whammond)’.
The publicity material is unusually self-deprecating and, of many gems, my favourite is the description of Cormac Byrne’s bodhran playing as complex morse-code-based rhythm patterns which he broadcasts from his bedroom to try and contact the intergalactic Space Dodos. You can only be this irreverent about your playing if you are very good or if you’re sufficiently novice that you’re unaware of it.
Dodo Street are definitely not a band of novices.
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Hailing from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, banjo-playing singer and arranger Damien O’Kane certainly ruffled a few feathers with his recent solo album, Areas Of High Traffic. Featuring a selection of (as he rightly says) “great songs” they’re given a surprising sheen by O’Kane and his band, while the publicity images depict very urban, contemporary, scenes – all blurred traffic lights and graffiti. Very much rooted in the Celtic folk tradition it may musically be, but it doesn’t sound, or look, like your average folk album. Nonetheless, it’s deservedly wowed critics and listeners alike.
On stage since he was 13, performing with The O’Kane Family Band, Damien’s since gone on to partner with Shona Kilping and joined Flook (winning the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Group in 2006 with them), before embarking on a solo career, teaming up with David Kosky, and forming a professional and personal relationship with Yorkshire songstress Kate Rusby.
Prior to autumn dates with Kate, O’Kane’ll be playing with her, as well as appearing solo, at Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival 2016, in August.
Areas Of High Traffic had some incredible reviews, and was (of course) nominated for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award; any thoughts on why the album has made such an impact, and resonated with so many people?
Mmmmm. Sonically it is pretty different to most folk albums that came out last year, or at least the ones that I heard. I wanted a ‘big band’ sound for this album, with a kit and a more overall ‘modern’ sound to coat the fantastic traditional songs I’d chosen (bar one original song on the album). I have an eclectic taste in music having grown up listening to all sorts, from Techno/Dance Music right down to those classic Planxty albums or early Paul Brady material. I always wanted to try and marry the new with the old and I haven’t really had the courage until this album to do it. The album has more influences than just the aforementioned though. The other members of the band, Cormac Byrne on drums and percussion – Steven Iveson on electric guitar and Anthony Davis on keys/synths/pads and more, brought some of their musical experiences to the table and it resulted in a hugely enjoyable time in the studio. Together they cover blues, jazz, electronica and many more genres of traditional material. I brought all the material, all the chords and a shape for the songs, with a different sonic palette in mind for them and we all seemed to ‘pull on the same rope’, which was fantastic. I wanted an ambient, rocky, dancy feel to a lot of the material and I’m really chuffed how the album finished up.
I also think people are a lot more open minded to change these days. It is not such a shock anymore as there are so many interesting things going on in traditional music right now.
The theme of ‘family’ seems to link many of the songs, either in terms of subject or your decision to include – from ‘The Blacksmith’, which you remember hearing at an early age, to the more obvious ‘The Goddaughter’ and ‘Interlude For Mama’. Did you set out with that theme in mind when you were planning the album?
No, I didn’t set out with a ‘family’ theme, but I am hugely influenced and eternally grateful to my family who have supported and encouraged my music career from the very start. My folks introduced us (my three brothers, two sisters and I) to traditional music at a very early age and started sending us to classes. I have loved it since then. A huge number of children nowadays don’t even get the chance to play music and it is an ever declining ‘priority’ in schools from what I can see. That is a very sad thing. When I play music, Irish traditional music, I feel a huge sense of identity and family.
You’ve referred to the book Folk Singing in North Derry: Shamrock, Rose and Thistle as your “‘bible’ of folk songs” – when did you first come across the collection?
I first came across this book around 2008/2009 when I was introduced to a great collector of Irish traditional music and song, Jackie Devenney. Jackie hails from Coleraine in Co. Derry, like myself, and I was incredibly surprised to learn of Jackie and of the wealth of repertoire we boast in the north of Ireland. It is this material that excites me, songs with place names I recognise and places I played as a child. Shamrock, Rose and Thistle is only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the songs but I feel attached to it as it was my first learning of all these homeland songs and I love to take the stories out and bring them to life.
What are some of the ‘interesting bits and bangy things’ that percussionist Cormac Byrne is credited as playing on the album?
Well, Cormac could make a pencil sharpener rhythmical! But he did some really interesting things on Areas Of High Traffic on triangles and weird shakers and washboards and other things that I didn’t even recognise! The most interesting bangy thing he used was a bucket! Yes a bucket. You can hear it on the second track ‘The Blacksmith’. It is literally a metal bucket turned upside down. Genius!
The album has a very distinctive urban look – graffiti and skyscrapers; what was the idea behind it? Was there a conscious decision to make it not look like ‘a folk album’?
There was definitely a conscious decision to make it look different. The music is very different to anything I’ve done before so I thought the look should be too. There’s hints of urban music influences throughout the album, it is overall a more mainstream sound and I wanted to depict that through the image as well. I am really not a fan of the ‘stand in a field with a guitar’ photo, which has almost become a stereotype of folk music, and it has always been, arguably more so now than ever, a lot more than this. The next generation are creating some incredible and new sounds with folk music and it’s a really great time to be a part of it. Folk music deserves as much press as any other genre of music but it is hugely difficult to compete with those big bands on big labels where copious amounts of money are spent on image, then comes the music!! So I guess the answer is yes, I didn’t want it to look like a stereotype. I wanted it to be more interesting and David Angel, the photographer for the album, is the king at being interesting. I gave him an idea and he brought it to life.
I understand that you’ve been working on a new album with guitarist David Kosky – will this be a direct follow-up to The Mystery Inch, or something different?
I can’t really say very much about this at the minute but I am indeed working on an album with David Kosky. But not just David! There is another key banjo player involved in the project who will be announced at some point over the net few months but there is a list of guests planned for the album I would never, ever have dreamt I would ever work with!
When do you think they’ll be another solo album to follow Areas Of High Traffic?
I am starting a new solo album in October and would like to have it finished before the end of the year. I waited so long between Summer Hill and Areas Of High Traffic, through no fault of my own, but I’d like to follow up with another. I had so much fun making Areas… and the other lads are excited to get going on another.
Any other plans, projects or collaborations coming up?
Actually, I’ve just finished Producing Kate Rusby’s new album. I have to say, and even though she’s my wife, this is a very, very exciting album and not one people will expect. It is called Life In A Paper Boat and will be released in October but I’m not telling you anymore! As for other plans/ projects/ collaborations coming up, they are all covered in the questions above! I need some time to spend with my family.
You’re appearing twice at Towersey Festival – have you played the festival before?
I think the last and only time I played at Towersey was back in 2007 when I was playing in a duo with piano accordion player extraordinaire, the brilliant Shona Kipling. I can just remember being quite nervous. At that point I wasn’t really used to playing at big festivals but I remember having a great time and having a few drinks after the gig! I’ve been back as a punter since and it’s one of those festivals that has a great festival atmosphere and there’s lots going on all day every day. I’m looking forward to this year where I get to perform with Kate Rusby on the Friday (26 Aug 2016) and my own band on the Saturday (27 Aug 2016).
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You may think you know the music of Damien O’Kane but think again – his inspirational new album will certainly leave you wondering.
With a pervading theme of emigration and homeland nostalgia, Areas of High Traffic is the first solo album in five years from the Yorkshire-based Ulsterman, following on from Summer Hill (2010).
Extraordinary and unexpected after what went before, it sees O’Kane throwing in a number of curved balls, aided and abetted by his fine band – Steven Iveson (electric guitars), Anthony Davis (keyboards, synths, pads), stand-out percussionist Cormac Byrne and a guest appearance on one track by American bluegrass banjo wizard Ron Block (Alison Krauss and Union Station).
Slickly produced by O’Kane and assisted by Joe Rusby, it is something of a homage to his native Northern Ireland. O’Kane cherry picks traditional songs, moulding them into something more contemporary, engaging and stirring – all delivered in his rich Irish brogue.
Growing up in Coleraine his first stage appearance when barely a teenager was with his own parents and siblings in the family band, dubbed “The Von Trapps of Coleraine”.
An outstanding banjo and guitar player and now a vital member of The Kate Rusby Band, Damien’s previous incarnations have included the duo partnership with accordionist Shona Kipling and his time as a member of Anglo-Irish band Flook, as well as the release of an instrumental album with David Kosky.
On Areas of High Traffic he takes songs from the bedrock of Irish music and revisits them in a previously untapped, unconventional but always empathetic way. Says Damien: “Songs like ‘The Blacksmith’ and ‘I Am A Youth’ are so iconic I’ve avoided them like the plague. But I’ve always loved them and I decided I had to overcome this fear of the “don’t touch”songs. Singing them takes me back home.”
The end result is radically original.
“I decided I wouldn’t set any boundaries and I’d perform the songs exactly as felt right. There may be a touch of rebellion about it but I haven’t done anything just for the sake of being different. I’ve tried to get inside every song and the arrangements reflect the lyrics.”
And when all the pieces are fused together with true empathy and care, the results are spectacular. These are songs from the very fabric of Irish music, recorded many times and in many ways over centuries. But never like this.
With perfect harmony vocals from Kate Rusby and a brand new tune he definitely puts his own stamp on the famous ‘The Banks Of the Bann’. Elsewhere the mix of jazz, rock and world influences triggers a whole new sound to songs like ‘Erin’s Lovely Home’ and ‘The Close Of An Irish Day’ whilst ‘The Green Fields Of America’ addresses Ireland’s sad history of enforced emigration.
This theme continues in the one contemporary song on the 11-track album – Robin Williams and Jerome Clark’s poignant ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger’, a song which proves a perfect fit for O’Kane.
Damien himself has penned two beautiful tunes to people in his life – ‘The Goddaughter Part 1’ and the exquisite ‘Interlude For Mama’.
Released on the Pure Records label on November 9, Areas of High Traffic is traditional Irish folk for grown-ups – a roller-coaster of exploration into the heart and heritage of Irish music, shaken and stirred by a master musician and vocalist. Thoughtful, provocative, uplifting and inspirational the collection marks O’Kane’s emergence as one of the most vital talents in modern folk music.
An album launch gig with the full band will be held in London at The Forge, Camden on Thursday, November 12.
Further gigs showcasing the new album will be at Manchester’s Chorlton Irish Club (Carousel Sessions) on November 11 and Belfast’s Duncairn Arts Centre on November 14.
“Areas of High Traffic is an extraordinary album. But then, Damien O’Kane is an extraordinary musician…a provocatively original interpreter of folk song.” – Colin Irwin