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.
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Damien 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.
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Unquestionably my favourite female folk singer of her generation, traditional or otherwise, dubbed the Barnsley Nightingale, her pure voice never seeking to disguise her Yorkshire vowels, Rusby has been plying her trade for 24 years. Life In A Paper Boat is her 14th studio album, one which, while hewing to familiar tropes, nevertheless sets sail for new boundaries. This time round, husband Damien O’Kane had more time to experiment with the production, adding in sounds and effects that could be reproduced on stage, most specifically in areas of non drum percussion, courtesy of Josh Clark, and in extensive use of moog by bassist Duncan Lyall, enrobing the traditional with the contemporary.
As ever, the material is a mix of originals and traditional numbers, the title track, like many a recent folk album, inspired by the migrant crisis, but also serving as a springboard for other images and themes. Her repository of ballads provides the source for the album’s 17th century opener, ‘Benjamin Bowmaneer’, string section, bouzouki and diatonic accordion providing the backing for an rhythmically heady nonsense story of a tailor who fought for England with a horse made from a sheer board, a bridle of scissors and a needle as a spear, sometimes also known as ‘The Tailor And The Louse’, in which the flea represents his wife.
The first of the self-penned number, the yearningly delicate, slow waltzing ‘Hunters Moon’, takes on equally symbolic imagery, going cosmic in the use of the sun and the moon as metaphors for unrequited lovers, then it’s back to the traditional for her own musical setting of ‘The Ardent Shepherdess’, a dreamy, suitably pastoral arrangement that features a banjo interlude from Ron Block.
Maybe it’s because we’re a approaching Christmas, but the title track has a carol feel, O’Kane’s tenor electric guitar providing the tune’s foundation, Cooke’s accordion surfacing midway as Rusby sings of a widowed mother and her child, an ancient land “left behind in ruins” and a tentative note of hope in the prospect of the promised land to which they sail. The sea is at the heart of another of the originals, this time claiming the narrator’s life in the breathily-sung traditional coloured ‘The Mermaid’, one of the tracks to make extensive and effective use of moog and programming as well as featuring guest harmony vocals from Dan Tyminski.
Starting faintly before Anthony Davis’s keys enter the picture, Lyall’s double bass. O’Kane strummed acoustic and Steven Iveson’s electric guide Rusby’s melodic setting of the lover’s pledge ‘Hundred Hearts’. It’s credited as “words trad & K Rusby”, though, given Google failed to identify any folk song by that name or with similar lines, the traditional springboard in question may well be the anonymous valentine’s card epigram “A hundred hearts would be too few / To carry all my love for you.”
Firmly traditional in origin as well as sound, featuring accordion and Michael McGoldrick on whistle and flute, the mid-tempo ‘Pace Egging Song’ stems from the West Yorkshire Easter tradition (Pace derives from Pacha, the Latin for Easter) of performing Pace Egg Village plays wherein St George takes on all comers, here including Lord Nelson, Jolly Jack Tar and Old Miser and is, essentially, a beer begging number.
The last of the traditional numbers, another steeped in celestial imagery, ‘Night Lament’, again sees Rusby adapting the words and providing the tune, arranged for viola, fiddle and cello, and again one for which I cannot trace the source material.
Not traditional as such, but certainly getting on a few years, the longest track here, at over six minutes, is, accompanied solely by electric tenor, moog and double bass an atmospheric, a version of Archie Fisher’s epic narrative ‘The Witch of Westmoreland’, originally featured on his 1976 album. The Man With The Rhyme, and later popularised by Stan Rogers, which tells of a how a wounded knight is led by various animal guides to the witch who can heal him in both flesh and spirit.
The remaining two ‘official’ numbers are both by Rusby, the jaunty but reflective ‘Only Desire What You Have’ (which about not pursuing greed rather than about just accepting your lot) again featuring Tyminski, McGoldrick and Block, while, the most experimental sounding in its programming and percussion, ‘I’ll Be Wise’, a familiar tale of a girl beguiled and betrayed, plays out rather like a slow shanty sway.
There is, though, a bonus track, one on which Rusby’s playfulness sparks through, ‘Big Brave Bill’, which, set to a military beat with Yorkshire brass flourishes of cornet, flugel horn, French horn, tuba and euphonium, tells of Barnsley’s own super-hero performing such derring do feats as rescuing a lad from the mud, a trapped miner and, most notably, old Mrs Dobbins from Dearneside who found herself in Mallorca, served with a cup of warm water, lifeless tea bag and UHT milk until Bill swooped in with a kettle and some good old Yorkshire Tea. These adventures, as well as sending off a flying saucer, can be thoroughly enjoyed with the accompanying animation at www.bigbravebill.com. Kate Rusby, folk music’s proper brew.
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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
An album by unquestionably my favourite female voice in contemporary folk (it’s those homely, but somehow also sexy Barnsley vowels) and a version of ‘Martin Said’, the song that first introduced me to folk music – Christmas has definitely come early.
Working, as ever, with guitarist husband Damien O’Kane and variously joined by Michael McGoldrick on whistles and flute, double bassist Duncan Lyall, bouzouki player Steven Byrnes, accordionists Nick Cooke and Julian Sutton, electric guitarist Steven Iveson and Rex Preston on mandolin with Union Station’s Ron Block providing banjo, not to mention the occasional string quartet, Rusby’s 12th studio recording is also her first all new material in four years, Unlike Make The Light, however, there’s only three self-penned tracks here, the rest being arrangements of traditional numbers.
One such opens proceedings in the shape of her take on the familiar Child Ballad, ‘The Outlandish Knight’, the unease in the lyrics about a maiden getting the better of her murderous suitor underscored by guitar drone and haunting diatonic accordion. It’s traditional again for the second track, ‘The Youthful Boy’, another false heart tale as, her lover having gone off to sea, the abandoned woman declares she’ll not mourn his death, Block’s banjo dappling notes around Rusby’s airy tones.
Buoyed up by accordion, the first original is ‘We Will Sing’, a sprightly contribution to the canon of songs celebrating May and spring’s renewal while its two companions are the liltingly lovely, melody cascading ‘After This’ with its affirmation of the healing power of song and the rather darker title track album closer, a somewhat gothic tale of a departed lover’s brief haunting visits (reflected in the booklets artwork) played out with just voice and piano.
It’s a theme mirrored to implied or overt extent in two of the album’s traditional numbers, the gently wistful ‘Night Visit’, set to a tune by Tony Cuffe, where a man braves the ‘roaring tempest’ for a night of passion with his lover, and the suitably subdued air of ‘The Bonnie Bairns’, where a lady encounters two mysterious children who lead her deep into the woods to deliver new of her lover’s fate.
Heartbreak weighs heavy too on ‘I Am Sad’’s acoustic melancholic lament of blighted love, but you’ll be pleased to know that it’s not all doom and gloom, with the remaining traditional contributions including a spiritedly upbeat ‘Three Jolly Fishermen’, the electric guitar (courtesy of Doyle) and accordion refrain friendly swayalong ‘The Magic Penny’ and, with McGoldrick on whistles, ‘Silly Old Man’, another tale of coming good financially as the titular protagonist turns the tables on the thief who tries to rob him. As R. Dean Taylor once said, there’s a Ghost in my house. There really should be one in yours, too.
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