John Doyle is as much a story teller as a musician, and he’s masterful at both. In his second solo album, Shadow and Light, he shares stories and portraits of Irish and Irish/American life. A founding member of Solas, John Doyle was born in Dublin but is now based in the U.S. His unique finger-style guitar playing is much in demand; in addition to his Grammy Award winning collaboration with Chicago-born Irish fiddle player Liz Carroll (Double Play, 2010), he has also forged recent successful partnerships with Tim O’Brien, Karan Casey and Heidi Talbot, as well as two years on the road with Joan Baez – to name but a few.
With subject matter gleaned from history, legend and family – all but one of the 11 tracks on Shadow and Light were composed by Doyle. The opening battle cry of Clear The Way tells a story of bloody battles fought by the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. The song also serves as a shrewd observation on the Irish propensity to fight against themselves wherever they are in the world.
There are two instrumental contributions to the album – in Killoran’s Church / Swedishish, the smoothest possible bluegrass fiddle backing, provided by Stuart Duncan, on Killoran, leads to the trotting pace of Swedishish, carried along expertly by John Williams on accordion. If music has a habit of making you smile, the relaxed but lively approach to this track will delight. The other instrumental, Tribute to Donal Ward / The Currachman, pays homage to Doyle’s uncle with a blissful solo guitar piece, before Michael McGoldrick joins in on uillean pipes for the toe-tapping, finger-picking mirth of The Currachman.
Family histories play a significant part in this album, especially in the tale of The Arabic, the ship on which Doyle’s Grandfather sought emigration to America, only for it to be torpedoed by a German U-boat. He survived and was returned to Ireland. On a more tender note, the gentle and popular live track Little Sparrow, dedicated to Doyle’s daughter, is at last given a studio setting.
The topic of war is further addressed in Farewell to All That, which commemorates the loss of 645 out of 666 men suffered by The Dublin Fusiliers in a WW1 gas attack. The story is related through the eyes of a survivor, haunted by his front line experiences.
At times the influence of Doyle’s Irish cultural heritage is mixed with hints of his personal musical heritage. The song of love, betrayal and fate Wheel Of Fortune has a solid traditional feel to the lyrical content, as does the transportation ballad Bound for Botany Bay. In each track the musical and vocal style carries distinct flavours of The Incredible String Band. Similarly, in Bitter Brew, Doyle approaches the topic of alcoholism with guitar and vocal eerily reminiscent of Bert Jansch.
John Doyle’s appealing tenor vocals and finger-picking guitar are clearly the cornerstone of this album. His self-taught left-handed technique produces a driving, dynamic sound with incredibly intricate flourishes. The foundation, though, is the song-writing. Few singer/songwriters are as adept as John Doyle when it comes to developing the inveterate themes of Irish Traditional music. Doyle takes these themes; war, oppression, love and emigration, and sets compelling narratives to engaging arrangements.