Given his work with Flook, Shona Kipling and, more recently, his partner Kate Rusby, I expected Damien O’Kane’s debut solo album to be a collection of perfectly executed banjo tunes with the occasional song. Oh how I love to be educated. I was wrong; very, very wrong. In Summer Hill Damien has given us something rather special. Something with astute instrumentation, thoughtful arrangements and contributing musicians of the highest calibre. Summer hill has all those things, and even more.
The Strands Of Magilligan provides a strong opening to the album, with rich guitar and banjo. Damien’s voice is an asset from the first note of song. The richness and soft Irish tones are perfectly suited to the collection of songs here, and it’s quite a collection. The opening track is one of seven traditional songs on the album. For each of these Damien has written his own music and the result is comforting blend of traditional songs with a contemporary atmosphere.
There are contributions from a host of musicians, unfortunately far too many to mention, but David Kosky provides impeccable guitar support throughout and there’s also important input from Ian Carr. Michael McGoldrick is there with flute, pipe and vocals. Here and there, the most heard but least mentioned (in reviews anyway) percussionist in the land, James MacKintosh is unmistakable and John-Joe Kelly is responsible for bodhran essentials.
The title track, Summer Hill, shines out for many reasons. This song is beautifully arranged with its gently stirring tempo, hint of electric guitar and Andy Sewerd’s long, resonant bass. Within seconds you’re drawn in, mesmerized by every word of the story, every note of Damien’s music, every nuance of the arrangement. Then Kate Rusby’s harmonies start and the song moves to an even higher plane. The harmonies compliment Damien’s more robust voice perfectly and the combination is irresistible.
While the title track treats us to something gentle, sublime and wonderful, Laurel Hill is evocative and compelling. Again, a traditional song with Damien’s own music (and the occasional added lyric), the song tells a story everyone who enjoys a good ballad knows. We’re still drawn in though, and long to catch every word, every moment of the story. Damien’s knowledge of his native songs, and his impressive ability to adapt them and make them his own, have done a great deal to shape the sound of this album.
Although a fine collection of beautifully adapted traditional songs, Summer Hill isn’t exclusive in its content. Raven’s Wing, by Barry Kerr, is a thought provoking song about alcoholism. Ewan MacColl’s The Lags Song deals with youth and time lost in a prison cell. The impressive instrumentation expected from Mr O’Kane himself is there in abundance too. The finest example being the adventurous multi-layered feast of pure banjo; Seasick Dee and Dee Goes To Holyhead.
There are snatches of string arrangements, such as in Farewell Coleraine, that give yet further depth and changes in direction to the album. The string quartet of Donald Grant (fiddle), Thea Speirs (fiddle), Rachel Jones (viola) and Lucy Payne (cello) also grace the bonus track; Ian Campbell’s The Sun Is Shining. This melodic close to the album is a sing-along with Damien’s mother, Colette and Kate Rusby. The sun sets on Summer Hill with a warm glow, the lull of gentle strings, and a fine chorus of soft voices.
Damien O’Kane’s solo debut is both stirring and sensitive. His voice and song presentation are reminiscent of Paul Brady (but still very much his own), his musicianship and contributed melodies are a joy to listen to, and there’s an impressive gathering of artists to support this release. Joe Rusby’s rich production is an equally important aspect, a little over-worked on the vocals at times, I thought, but that’s more a matter of personal taste. The simple fact is that all these factors have come together to create a well crafted and highly enjoyable collection of music and song that should appeal to lovers of traditional and contemporary music alike.
Artist Site and Gig Dates (solo and with Kate Rusby)