The Irish multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and artist Barry Kerr is no stranger to performing or recording – the word ‘prolific’ barely even begins to cover his output – but his new self-released album Boy In A Boat has been a long time coming. It’s been eight years since The World Looks Away, his first album as a singer and songwriter and, as he says, “I’ve seen a lot of the world in between, often from a tour bus window, and I’ve wound up back in the country, living on the shores of Lough Neagh, older and hopefully wiser, immersed in nature and with the space for quiet contemplation.” As frustrating as the delay must have been, it’s also allowed him to focus on making the music that truly moved him and the result is a record which captures the essence of his sound while retaining its accessibility.
The personal toll of those years on the road is laid bare in the brace of songs that open the record and listening to them is the musical equivalent of receiving postcards from the road. California To You is a love letter soundtracked by mandolins and guitars that undulate gently like palm trees in a warm breeze while Pauline Scanlon’s sweet harmonies add a sense of yearning. The Leaving Song is woven through with Barry’s mournful Uilleann pipes and harmony vocals which evoke the melodic modes of traditional Arabic music; the lyrics draw a parallel between the nomadic lifestyles of contemporary musicians and the traditionally itinerant ethnic Irish Travellers.
The subject of Irish Travellers provides a conceptual link of sorts to Woman Of No Place, the lyrics of which pay tribute to Margaret Barry, whose traditional singing and banjo playing were such a big influence on ballad singers in Ireland and the UK (notably Luke Kelly, a founding member of The Dubliners). Conor McCreanor’s double bass and Dónal O’Connor’s piano create a steady pulsing rhythm over which Barry’s mellow vocals tell of Margaret’s life and times.
The traditional reel Saely Kelly (also known as Susanna Kelly) is a very ancient air, believed to have been composed by the Sligo harper Thomas Connallon in the mid-17th century, and has been a popular tune with many fiddlers down through the ages. In this slow, almost ambient arrangement, Barry’s breathy flute carries the tune over Dónal’s gentle piano and Conor’s wiry double bass to create a tangible sense of space, of the rising sun burning back the grey mist over the quiet sea. It’s a mesmerising listen and a definite highlight of the record.
Illegal turns the clock forward two hundred years to tell the tale of an undocumented Irish migrant who, having fled the Great Famine and found work as a bricklayer in midtown Manhattan, sets about building a new life for himself despite the heartbreak of knowing that he can never go home. Barry’s lyric subtly highlights the extreme differences between rich and poor, and the devastating effects that immigration can have. The spoken word narrative at the bridge encapsulates the song’s mixture of anger and despair and will surely strike a chord with anyone who keeps up with current affairs and who possesses even a grain of conscience. Providing social commentary is one of the great traditions of folk music, yet it’s often overlooked by many contemporary musicians whose dreams are only of fame and fortune. So it’s to Barry’s credit that he’s taken the opportunity to provide this timely reminder that any of our lives can change irreversibly in the blink of an eye – and ’twas ever thus, as the saying goes.
Drawing its inspiration from Irish mythology, the traditional Setanta is given a thoroughly contemporary arrangement by Barry and Dónal. The lyric tells the story of the warrior Cú Chulainn, the son of Lugh and Deichtine and a member of the otherworldly Tuatha Dé Danaan, who was known in his childhood as Setanta. Electric piano, fingerstyle guitar and a scattering of powerchords provide the backdrop for some exquisitely layered harmonies in a restrained composition where the storyteller’s art is very much the focus.
Return To Castor Bay is dedicated to Barry’s family and home and is a gently uptempo instrumental. Flute and Uilleann pipes entwine over delicate acoustic guitar in this soothing and healing interlude. A more sombre mood surfaces in Nowhere Left To Run, a story about a gambling man with a taste for the good life, hunted down by a woman he mistreated and who leaves him for dead. The song modulates between major and minor keys, reflecting the good and the bad of the protagonist’s life while the fast strummed guitar creates a sense of urgency, of flight, against an ominous electric piano part.
A 19th century Scottish song, Érin Go Bragh (the anglicisation of an Irish phrase, Éirinn go Brách – approximately translating as “Ireland Forever”) tells the story of Duncan Campbell, a Highland Scot, who is mistaken for an Irishman and finds himself in all kinds of trouble as a result. Eamon Murray’s percussion and Ruairi Cunnane’s guitar keep things moving smartly along while the combined flute and Uilleann pipes skirl in an appropriately Alban manner.
The record closes with the wistful When Autumn Comes, an elegiac word picture of the beauty of Ireland seen through the lens of the loneliness of life on the road and the joy of coming home to the loved ones who wait there. It’s a quietly upbeat composition with some gorgeous harmonies behind Barry’s rich, world-weary vocals over a simple but effective backing of acoustic guitar and pipes.
It’s been a long time coming, but Boy In A Boat is a fine record, which combines literate songwriting and top class musicianship with high production values and painstaking attention to detail. The result is an album of which Barry Kerr can be justifiably proud; one which more than holds its own with the big names of the contemporary Celtic music scene.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now via Boy in a Boat Records