DAMIEN O’KANE & RON BLOCK – Banjophony (Pure Records PRCD48)

BanjophonyIf you’re not a fan of the five-string egg-slicer you might be thinking of moving on but hold hard there, stranger. This is no ‘Duelling Banjos’, last one to the end gets the beers in mayhem-fest. The object of the exercise was to pair the 5-string banjo of the American tradition with the Irish style of tenor banjo playing but Banjophony does more than that. Most of the music here is contemporary, mostly written by O’Kane and Block with two each by Michael Mooney and David  Kosky and a traditional tune that crept in when no-one was watching.

Have a look at the cast list and you’ll realise that this is something rather special. There’s Stephen Byrnes on guitar, Duncan Lyall and Barry Bales on double bass, Michael McGoldrick on whistle and Stuart Duncan on fiddle just for starters. Indeed, we’re half a minute into the first set, ‘Miller’s Gin/Potato Anxiety’ before we actually hear a banjo courtesy of a lovely guitar intro from Byrnes.

Some tunes sound traditional – Block’s ‘Battersea Skillet Liquor’ is classic southern banjo picking topped of with fiddle – but more sound like new music written with the banjo in mind. O’Kane’s ‘Ode To Aunty Frances’ is a beautiful piece that could be arranged for any instrument(s) you fancy and still sound good. ‘Crafty Colette’ is another tune that approaches the banjo lead slowly and that lead, when it arrives, can best be described as “thoughtful”.

The band are very tight and Byrnes has contributed to the arrangements as has Kosky and all the music was recorded live apart from two double bass parts which came from Tennessee. You can almost feel the rapport between the musicians particularly when a tune doesn’t quite behave as expected. The title track is like that and is well-named.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ websites: www.damianokane.co.uk / www.ronblock.com

This short teaser video is all we can find:

Damien O’Kane live at Chapel Arts Centre, Bath. Friday 23rd February 2017

Damien O'Kane
Photograph by Martyn Plant

On taking to the stage at Bath’s Chapel Arts Centre Damien O’Kane immediately established himself as a genial and engaging presence. The Northern Irish singer and musician spoke warmly of the venerable Roman city while diplomatically avoiding any suggestion that he was less enamoured of Basingstoke, where he had appeared with his accomplished band the previous evening.

Somewhat boldy perhaps, O’Kane opted to commence proceedings with an instrumental, the traditional Irish melody ‘Castle Kelly’s’, drawn from recently released third album Avenging And Bright. This introductory number served as musical scene-setting since it amply showcased the lush and enveloping sound the band conjures, while O’Kane’s dexterous banjo playing occupied centre-stage. Guitarists, Steve Byrnes and Steven Iveson played impeccably throughout the night, while the keyboards of Anthony Davis added a contemporary tonal palette that sets O’Kane’s music apart from that of many of his contemporaries.

A strain of dry and eccentric humour surfaced (not for the last time) when the singer informed us that though he sits to play the banjo he will be on his feet for the guitar; the banjo being an exceptionally heavy instrument we were assured. Much of the music Damien O’Kane played tonight was evocative of a reflective, perhaps pensive frame of mind and steadily absorbed the keenly attentive audience. One striking moment was O’Kane’s sensitive rendition of ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, its traditional lyrics set to a tune of the artist’s own devising. This beguiling love song set on the fringes of Northern Ireland’s longest river was a particularly apt choice given that the fabled watercourse snakes through O’Kane’s hometown of Coleraine. Before the interval was reached O’Kane managed to rouse the initially reticent audience to sing the chorus of a song taught to him by his grandfather: ‘P Stands For Paddy I Suppose’. It was however, necessary for the singer to halt proceedings mid-song to playfully lambast the audience for their timid vocals before the lines were sung back to O’Kane with heightened gusto.

Taking to the stage for the second half the show, O’Kane informed the audience that his fellow band-mates had advised him during the interval to curtail his between-song banter and concentrate on the songs. Indeed, the relaxed and gently humorous mood of the show’s first hour seemed largely supplanted during what followed by a greater sense of urgency and intent. The second set opened with a full-throttle rendering of the superb ‘Boston City’, the opening track of Avenging And Bright. Other melodious gems from the album abounded during the second set providing many examples of the tremendous musicianship of O’Kane and his band. Instrumental interludes occasionally provided instances of the impish humour evident in O’Kane’s earlier comments and observations. At one point the group detoured without warning from traditional tunes into the Muppet Show theme, complete with stonily earnest expressions worthy of Statler and Waldorf themselves. Elsewhere we were treated to a po-faced excerpt from Mungo Jerry’s, ‘In The Summertime’; a mightily incongruous inclusion in a set list of traditional music at any time but particularly so on this perishingly cold February night in Bath.

After the extended and warmly received encore it was clear that Damien O’Kane had found many supporters for his expansive vision of traditional music. Equally evident was the considerable instrumental prowess of his unassuming band. For those folk enthusiasts of the opinion that traditional music can thrive in a contemporary settings Damien Kane is most assuredly your man.

Tim Carter

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://damienokane.co.uk/

The Damien O’Kane Band: ‘P Stands For Paddy’ – live:

Tim Carter presents ‘Off the Beaten Track’ on Somer Valley FM (www.somervalleyfm.co.uk) on Monday evenings at 6pm.

DAMIEN O’KANE – Avenging & Bright (Pure Records PRCD46)

Avenging & BrightDamien O’Kane isn’t actually auditioning for Game Of Thrones on the cover. The cos-play refers to the title track, ‘Avenging & Bright’, taken from a poem by Thomas Moore about a mediaeval Irish dust up. On the back of the booklet you’ll see his band: Steven Byrnes and Steven Iveson (guitars) and Anthony Davis (keyboards) all similarly attired.

We’re used to people doing strange thing to folk music whether it’s putting a rock band behind it or adding neo-classical strings but Damien O’Kane takes a different route, using the styles of late 20th/early 21st century pop. In fact the opener, ‘Boston City’ starts with a passage of ambient guitar and I really wasn’t sure about this record at first. It struck me that you could strip the songs away from the backings and substitute anything you wished.

I’ve rather warmed to Avenging & Bright since, partly because of the quality of the material and partly because of the playing, particularly on the more delicate tracks and particularly the guitar parts. The songs sound traditional but fewer than half of them are and in many cases Damien has provided new tunes. For the others, he’s borrowed from near and far: Kate Rusby, who also provides backing vocals on ‘Lately’, Sean McBride, Dave Goulder and Elizabeth Stirling, who he credits with the authorship of ‘All Among The Barley’ although many authorities credit Alfred Williams with its collection and Mike Yates with providing the tune.

The best tracks for me are ‘The Homes Of Donegal’ and the delightful instrumental ‘Dancing In Puddles’, one of two tracks to feature Ron Block on banjo but that’s just picking the icing off the top of the cake. Damien clearly has belief in the songs he sings and is prepared to push the envelope in presenting them to his listeners.

Dai Jeffries

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://damienokane.co.uk/

‘Poor Stranger’ – official video:

ROSS AINSLIE – Sanctuary (Great White Records, GWR005CD)

SanctuaryIf there’s a more intensely personal album release this year than Ross Ainslie’s third album, Sanctuary, it would be hard to find. It’s a conceptual piece, a celebration of five sober years – no mean feat in the musician’s world, where it’s always pub o’clock somewhere.

Ainslie’s well-known as a champion of the broader context of Scottish instruments and for his work with musicians of an international background, such as India Alba, amongst very many others. So, it’s no surprise that the musical influences here are equally wide-ranging, with its eastern palette of sounds embracing a distinctly Scottish heart.

He’s also keen on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, apparently, and aimed to produce in ‘Sanctuary’ a similar kind of conceptual soundscape. So, don’t put it on shuffle. Listen to the complex, layered sounds as a continual flow, as intended, and it will repay in spades.

The titles of the twelve tracks on the album (and surely this number is no coincidence?) indicate key milestones, signposts along a determined route, with the calming, beautiful opener ‘Inner Sanctuary’ perhaps the heart and soul of the album. A gently shushing shoreline is overlaid with a tender, swooping elegiac fiddle (a stunning performance by Greg Lawson throughout) with Ainslie managing to extract the inner Scot from the bamboo tones of the Indian bansuri.

Finding a personal retreat has been essential for Ainslie, and he’s found it in his music: his mastery of his instruments is simply outstanding. Whistles brightly dance in ‘Protect Yourself’ and ‘Cloud Surfing’, then are overlaid by frenetic piping in ‘Road To Recovery’, which races along over a choppy guitar and tabla zing. On ‘Surroundings’, his breathing just audible beneath the seamless phrasing of this complex theme, is a reminder of Ainslie’s skilled control – and not just of his flying fingers.

Each musician makes a vital contribution to the flow of the overall sound, each layer builds up into a cohesive whole. There are so many wonderful and talented musicians playing here, but Damien O’Kane’s fierce banjo deserves mention, as a perfect foil for the complex celtic knot of whistles on ‘Happy Place’ and the exuberant highland pipes of ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’. Tabla player Zakir Hussain and Soumik Datta on sarod lend Indian overtones to the juddering, descending motif of ‘Home In Another Dimension’, a surprisingly rocky track coming after the delicate eastern influences of ‘Beautiful Mysteries’.

The final piece, ‘Escaping Gravity’ an atmospheric poem with a vaguely oriental feel, expresses the conscious choice of sobriety. Its final phrase “Escaping gravity in my inner sanctuary” loops us right back to the album’s beginning, and reminds us that this is a set of mantras to be repeated every day. It’s what “one day at a time” means.

This album’s genesis is as inspiring as its form is delightful. It has a maturity, mellowness and a sense of peace, but it’s also a testament to some real personal grit. Learning to be with yourself and accepting yourself, flaws and all, is no mean feat. Turning such a challenging experience into a warm, accessible piece of music is altogether another level of amazing.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.rossainslie.com

Album sampler:

KATE RUSBY – Angels & Men (Pure PRCD44)

Angels & MenBringing the 25th anniversary of her music career to date to a sparkling finale, Kate Rusby sees the year out with Angels & Men, her fourth Christmas album, again featuring a collection of predominantly South Yorkshire carols, but, this time, produced by husband Damien O’Kane with what she calls “an iridescent twinkle”.

Twinkle it most certainly does on the opening gambit of ‘Hark Hark’, the crispness burnished by the mulled wine warmth of cornet, French horn, Flugel horn and tuba, complemented by euphonium, diatonic accordion and, special guest from the Alison Krauss Band, Ron Block on banjo.

The album marks another first in featuring a Christmas standard in the jaunty form of Sammy Chan and Jule Styne’s festive chestnut, ‘Let It Snow’, given her own Barnsley sheen and, again featuring the brass section, a folksy instrumental interpolation.

Changing the ambience for a more brooding, portentous tone, featuring O’Kane on guitar, Duncan Lyle on moog with Josh Clark on percussion, ‘Paradise’ returns to the South Yorkshire canon for what is, in fact, a variation on ‘Down In Yon Forest’, a Renaissance carol about the nativity based on the Middle English hymn, the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. And, on the subject of variations, things take a playful turn for ‘The Ivy And The Holly’, a cover of Kipper Family member Chris Sugden’s witty riposte to the evergreen carol as having “no good points between ‘em!” from their 1989 album Arrest These Merry Gentlemen.

Rusby, of course, recorded the original carol on Sweet Bells, her 2008 Christmas album, and the lively ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ is, in fact a revisiting of the title track in a fuller brass arrangement, basically ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ with an added Yorkshire village chorus and renamed after the tune.

The words written in 1858 by Edward Caswell and set to the tune of ‘Humility’ in 1871 by John Goss, ‘See Amid The Winter Snow’ is also known as ‘Hymn For Christmas Day’, the simple cascading brass arrangement here perfectly capturing the theme of purity.

Featuring a circling guitar pattern from O’Kane with Nick Cooke on accordion although credited as traditional, the first two verses and chorus of ‘Rolling Downward’ are actually taken from the lyrics by 19th century Pennsylvanian hymnalist Robert Lowry with Rusby providing an amendment to the third.

Another familiar festive number arrives ‘Deck The Halls’, Clark laying down the rhythmic bedrock with the brass section and Aaron Jones on bouzouki adding extra joie de vivre to its fa la la la la. Then, things take another contemporary turn with a sleigh bells feel to Richard Thompson’s ‘We’ll Sing Hallelujah’, reclaiming its somewhat depressive and downbeat lyrics about mortality and investing it with a jubilant feel.

Introduced by a sample her young daughter Daisy saying banjo over and over, the light-hearted ‘Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo’ is another cover, this time from Canadian singer-songwriter David Myles, taken at a more measured tempo and featuring Block again on banjo, this time joined by Sierra Hull on mandolin.

The album ends with two Rusby originals. Clocking at just under six minutes, the slow waltzing ‘Let The Bells Ring’ is a bittersweet mingling of sadness at the passing of the year and the hope of the one beginning, Anton Davis on piano as it gathers to a swelling orchestral brass crescendo. The final track reprises Barnsley’s very own Yorkshire tea-drinking super-hero first featured on last year’s Life In A Paper Boat, returning for ‘Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas’ as he variously melts Sid the bad snowman with a pot of tea, saves Daisy and sister Phoebe from the thin ice over the lake and digs Santa out of a Lapland snowdrift, bringing it all to a climax with military drums and a flourish of brass. And, in good super-hero movie tradition, stay on for that extra little bonus after the final note. To borrow the name of well-known dessert, as the sleeve photo suggests, this is an Angel Delight.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.katerusby.com

‘Sweet Bells’ – live:

Ross Ainslie announces a remarkable third album

Ross Ainslie

Ross Ainslie is one of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians and composers, playing pipes, whistles and cittern. He is renowned for his highly acclaimed solo material, and as a skilled performer and prolific collaborator who performs regularly with bands Treacherous Orchestra (of which he is a founding member), Salsa Celtica, Dougie Maclean, Ali Hutton, Charlie Mckerron, Jarlath Henderson and India Alba.

This third album from Ross brings together a lot of his influences over the years playing in such bands as Salsa Celtica and India Alba. Ross has always been a fan of Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells and this album is based on the same idea and designed to be listened to like a journey. The album plays continuously from start to finish and as a bonus extra for pre-release copies you will receive the album in one track (digital format) the way it should be.

Sanctuary is a term Ross likes to use when describing what music is for him, coming up to five years sober!! Ross has been through some big changes and found ways of coping with certain situations without alcohol.

“I’ve found that I’m spending a lot of time on my own these days, being a travelling musician a lot of the social time is centred around drinking so I found it hard to be around so I would retreat to my room a lot, at first it took some time to get used to my own company but as the years have gone on I’ve found it to be a very productive and creative space, if I’m having a particularly bad day music is always the thing that will pick me up so that’s why this album is called Sanctuary”.

‘Inner Sanctuary’ is a track heavily influenced by his travels to India, it features a debut performance on Bansuri from Ross. The musicians on this album were selected very carefully and are all very comfortable in many genres, this track shows Greg Lawson playing with an Indian style.

‘Home In Another Dimension’ features one of Ross’s favourite musicians in the world, the one and only Zakir Hussain on tabla and also British/Indian Sarod maestro Soumik Datta. This track demonstrates a different style in writing for Ross with a definite Eastern flavour. ‘Let The Wild Ones Roam’ is a straight ahead rocking set of reels with the guys in their natural habitat. Damien O’Kane adds some amazing banjo to this track.

All the music on the album is composed by Ross apart from ‘Surroundings’ which was composed by Ross and Jamie Maclean.

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://rossainslie.com/holding/

Here’s the album sampler: