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

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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.

SHOW OF HANDS The Forum Bath Gig (12th November 2015)

SHOW OF HANDS The Forum Bath Gig

There can be few acts in any genre that would opt to open a concert with a song that their audience had never heard them perform. Yet this is precisely what Show of Hands did on Thursday evening amidst the art deco opulence of the Forum; then proceeded to showcase a succession of beguiling new compositions throughout their entire first set! It is of course Show of Hands’ confidence in the calibre of their own material as well as the staunch support they enjoy amongst audiences that underpinned this decision.

The duo of Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, abetted once again by the atmospheric double-bass playing and plaintive vocals of Miranda Sykes, presented their audience with music that took its inspiration from the songs they heard as teenagers in the folk clubs of Devon. Their new music marks something of a departure from recent material that has made increasingly more explicit reference to American folk idioms. Knightley’s facility as a songwriter able to vividly capture time, place and narrative in song was amply displayed in the new songs, which will appear on new album The Long Way Home in January 2016. Amongst the most memorable was ‘Breme Fell At Hastings’, written for the BBC series The Great British Story. Opening in arresting fashion with Anglo-Saxon words intoned by Knightley, the song focuses on Breme, a local farmer caught up in the Battle of Hastings. The song presents his death at the battle as emblematic of a lost Saxon cultural identity. Contrastingly, the spirited ‘Walk With Me (When The Sun Goes Down)’ conveyed a life-affirming zeal that will surely make it a favourite with audiences for years to come.

Following a short interval during which ale was hastily consumed and albums briskly snapped up by an appreciative crowd, Show of Hands returned to the stage for a set comprising some of their best loved material. Many of the songs were introduced with Knightly and Beer’s wry anecdotes about the circumstances in which the songs were written. The audience was also treated to an entertaining tale of how during a 2006 tour Show of Hands encouraged audiences to vote for them in a Devon County Council competition to determine history’s greatest Devonians. The pair duly outvoted the likes of Agatha Christie, Sir Francis Drake and Charles Babbage to scoop the award, to the apparent bewilderment of the competitions sponsors.

Amongst the highlights of the second set was the wistful ‘Santiago’, a song originally performed in collaboration with exiled Chilean musicians. This was one of several occasions in the evening when the massed voices of the audience combined with those of Knightley, Beer and Sykes to poignant effect. Trenchant social commentary was to the fore in the enduringly popular ‘Country Life’ and the banker-baiting ‘AIG’; an acronym that in Knightley’s hand was redefined as arrogance, ignorance and greed. One of the most affecting moments of the evening came with the first encore in which, without amplification, Knightly sang Ralph McTell’s ‘The Setting’, a pensive tale of a man accompanying his departing sister to a train stations as she sets off for an uncertain future. This was intermingled with Beer’s rendition of the traditional ‘Mary From Dungloe’. The two songs were so sensitively combined that the audience appeared mesmerised. For many there remains only one way to conclude a Show of Hands concert and the band did not disappoint. A rousing performance of ‘Cousin Jack’ filled the Forum and saw audience members still singing Knightley’s celebrated song of exiled Cornish miners as they departed into the streets of Bath.

Tim Carter

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

‘Cousin Jack’ – live in 2014

Tim Carter, presenter of ‘Off the Beaten Track’ reviews Show of Hands live

Show of Hands at Yeovil Octagon Theatre Saturday 27th October, 2012

Amongst the many acts that populate the current and seemingly ever-expanding British folk scene, few are as reliably rewarding in the live context as Show of Hands. It would seem that this is a view shared by many, since every seat in the house was taken for the band’s performance at The Octagon Theatre this evening.

Unlike many live concerts, in which the support act offers a truncated set to an indifferent audience, Show of Hands consistently present their discerning followers with an act worthy of further investigation. On this occasion the Yeovil audience was treated to a highly entertaining duo comprising of Canadian musician, Leonard Podolak and his musical partner from the United States, Matt Gordon. This pair performed some endearing Appalachian Mountain music, complete with nifty footwork and rhythmic slapping of limbs on a sand strewn wooden platform. The audience was entreated to participate in the musical body slapping and it was an oddly amusing sight from my vantage point to see an entire audience gamely clap a sequence of limbs in unison. Each partner in this entertaining duo was equally engaging, performing either solo or with the other and established a warm, good humoured atmosphere for what was to follow.

Quite clearly Show of Hands have much confidence in their newly released album ‘Wake the Union’ a work that combines perspectives on challenging times, historical and contemporary, on both sides of the Atlantic. The set began with the album’s opening track ‘Haunt You’. The appeal of this song, like so many Steve Knightly compositions before it, owes much to the composer’s ability to set an evocative narrative within a rousing musical setting.  Other highlights of the set included another ‘Wake the Union’ stand-out: ‘Katrina’. In this song the horrors of the New Orleans’ hurricane are made vivid through an evocative musical arrangement and Knightley’s quietly insistent vocal.

Elsewhere in the set Phil Beer provided an arresting moment in his superb and darkly atmospheric rendition of Charles Causley’s ‘Innocents Song’ set to dramatic fiddle playing. The towering shadow of Show of Hands’ virtuoso  multi-instrumentalist on one wall of the Octagon Theatre provided a striking visual counterpoint to the song’s eerie lyrical content.  Of course, Show of Hands could scarcely perform at this venue without a rare outing for the track ‘Yeovil Town’, a grimly humorous yarn about a late night encounter in a chip shop with one of the town’s less than folk-friendly denizens. It’s not often that a band can play a song that urges the audience to “stay away” from the town in which it’s performing yet Show of Hands pulled it off with aplomb, bringing much mirth to the house as they did so. Amidst the excellent new material there remained time for the band to perform a number of the song’s on which the high esteem in which they are held is founded. These include ‘Roots’, ‘A.I.G’ and perhaps Show of Hands’ best loved number ‘Cousin Jack’, an elegiac yet impassioned song about mass emigration to foreign climes in the wake of the collapse of the Cornish mining industry.

Show of Hands remains the folk act most likely to win over even those most resolutely antipathetic to folk music, effortlessly dispelling any preconceptions as they do so. The quality of the song-writing and musicianship on display this evening provide ample reason why after twenty years they continue to go from strength to strength. Tim Carter

Tim Carter presents ‘Off the Beaten Track’ every Monday at 6pm on Somer Valley FM. The show can be listened to on-line at www.somervalleyfm.co.uk

See Artist web link for latest tour details: www.showofhands.co.uk

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