Five years ago Folk Radio UK reviewed Damien O’Kane’s solo debut Summer Hill. Although the review encouraged various comparisons, Damien’s knack of creating a perfect new melody for a traditional folk song was one of the album’s most endearing qualities. Summer Hill was universally well received, of course; and since then he’s been involved in a number of projects. As well as working alongside his wife, Kate Rusby, Damien and David Kosky released The Mystery Inch in 2012, as skilful a collection of trad banjo/guitar duets as you could hope to find. At long last Damien has found the time to write and record his second solo album – Areas Of High Traffic. It’s a fitting follow-up to Summer Hill in that, for the most part, it’s a collection of traditional songs with many of the melodies written by Damien. It is, however, a very different album.
Damien grew up in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. With parents who were keen musicians and music fans, and a childhood spent listening to the likes of The Fureys, The Dubliners, Planxty and De Dannan; it’s hardly surprising he embarked on a career in music. This began when he took up the banjo at the age of ten. Damien’s performing career began alongside his parents and siblings in the seven-piece O’Kane Family Band (he loves to refer to them as the ‘Von Trapps of Coleraine’). In 2001 he moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to study a degree in Folk & Traditional Music. After graduating in 2005 he teamed up with Shona Kipling (the duo were nominated at the 2007 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), recorded with Flook and contributed to a host of live and studio projects before joining Kate Rusby’s band.
At last Damien’s found time to return to the studio and work on combining his incredible banjo skills with his captivating vocal style and his unique, inventive approach to writing new melodies for traditional songs. For Areas Of High Traffic, Damien’s decided to forego the option of inviting a host of collaborators and instead has brought together a core band where natural talent, creativity and an eagerness to explore abound.
Next Market Day opens the album, and it’s an opening that keeps you guessing for a moment or two. With Damien you can never be certain how he’ll approach any song, but you can certainly be sure it will be fascinating. Both song and melody came from Laura Hockenhull of The Long Hill Ramblers. Soft, atmospheric keyboard heralds acoustic guitar alongside Steven Iveson’s staccato, jazz enriched electric guitar. It’s a sound that appeals instantly and a lyric that, in the very best tradition, is just awash with double entendre.
It’s clear that despite having left Coleraine almost fifteen years ago, Damien’s music is still firmly rooted in the north of Ireland. It’s also clear that he isn’t going to shy away from taking that music he grew up with and move it in an entirely new direction. A key element of this approach is Steven Iveson on electric guitar. In a similar move to Damien, Steven Iveson left Coleraine to study music at Newcastle. He is, however, very much a jazz guitarist; which brings a fresh and dynamic dimension to the music.
Another of Damien’s three main collaborators on the album is bodhrán player and percussionist Cormac Byrne from Waterford, Ireland. Cormac has recently been playing as part of Seth Lakeman’s live band and is a founder member of BBC award winning band, Uiscedwr. His list of achievements is matched only by his skill as a percussionist; both are extensive. He brings to the album atmospheric and syncopating beats that lift the pace of the music and compliment Steven’s guitar work. The Blacksmith, for instance, is a song most fans of traditional folk music will be very familiar with. Although Damien stays with the best known melody for this track, there are some wonderfully risky beats in there and the instrumental bridge has lots to offer; with even stronger percussion and an astounding banjo duet with Ron Block (Alison Krauss & Union Station).
Damien first arrived in England to attend the newly started Folk & Traditional Music degree at Newcastle University. Leaving friends and family was a difficult step, and he’s cited his feelings of loss at the time as one of the reasons he identifies so closely with the many songs of emigration in the Irish tradition. Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger (by Robin Williams and Jerome Clark) is a contemporary song dealing with the same issues. There are many versions of this song around, each taking the same light, acoustic approach; producing a song where the lyrics and the vocalist shine. Damien’s arrangement takes a different approach – and it’s a masterpiece. Deeply atmospheric and passionate vocals, a sound that begins almost minimalist, but evolves into a sound as expansive as the Atlantic.
Many of the pieces selected for Areas Of High Traffic were sourced from the widely known treasury of Irish song – “Shamrock, Rose and Thistle: Folk Singing in North Derry”. Compiled by Hugh Shields; Damien describes this as his bible of song. True to his style, however, he isn’t content to simply lift a song from the collection, most of them are also given a new melody. This, in combination with the wider, more jazz/rock influenced sound developed for the album, has resulted in some marvellously surprising performances. The songs are lyrically unchanged from those lovingly sourced originals, but the sound is not only entirely new, it is entirely modern. If one track stands out as the pinnacle of what Damien seems to want to achieve with the album, it’s The Maid of Seventeen. Hearing these modern beats and guitar flourishes alongside the more archaic language of the songs can induce inner conflict for the listener, but it’s a conflict that’s soon resolved as the story and the music becoming equally fascinating. As often happens in these instances – the maid isn’t quite as coy as she pretends to be, and extended instrumental breaks show the band losing a degree of coyness too. It’s also a fine example of how Anthony Davis’ keyboards quietly and skilfully underpin the guitar and percussion beats that take centre stage. The emigration theme is explored further with The Green Fields Of America, dishing out layer upon layer of glorious guitar, acoustic and electric; with a tumbling keyboard over the top, and Erin’s Lovely Home is mournful and hypnotic until a completely different tempo divides the story and the song shifts from mournful to harrowing. In contrast, The Close Of An Irish Day is a more positive emigrant’s song, invoking happy memories of home. It’s packed full of Cormac Byrne’s intricate percussion and layers of Damien’s vocals. In The Banks Of the Bann there’s also a vocal contribution from, as we would hope, Kate Rusby. Damien’s lead vocal is, again, an impassioned performance. Not only can he write an outstanding melody; here he’s managed to write one that’s the perfect vehicle for Kate’s exquisite harmonies.
Even more evidence of Damien’s skill as a tunesmith is provided by two instrumentals inspired by, and dedicated to, family members. In The Goddaughter (part1), that flawless combination of guitar and percussion that’s so much a part of this album is given full rein. Along with Damien’s glorious banjo melody the mix is intense and exciting. Folky in spite of the jazz, the jazz there in spite of the trad melody, and it all works! Damien hints at his skill with an acoustic guitar all through the album. In the short and sweet Interlude For Mama he stops hiding this particular light under a bushel and brings a tenor guitar to the fore. Soft atmospheres and fingerstyle guitar lead straight into I Am A Youth – with intricate guitar layers and a spine-tingling vocal delivery, full of flourishes that a trad singer will tend to avoid, but fit Damien’s sound perfectly.
Damien’s already proved he’s capable of far more than wielding an awesome banjo. Summer Hill and The Mystery Inch have shown that not only can he take traditional sources and arrange them for a modern audience; he can also add his own flavours and personality to produce something that brings traditional song to life in contemporary settings. In Areas Of High Traffic, though, he’s gone well beyond that usual level of versatility. He’s taken on a whole new creative process. In many ways it feels like a very personal journey, he’s explored some of the traditional repertoire and given us an insight into what happens to music that populates his mind. This isn’t rebellion for the sake of it, neither is it some form of musical anarchy; it’s Damien laying bare his musical soul.
In Summer Hill, Damien took traditional songs and added his own melodies, exploring different methods of delivery – different directions in which a song can be taken. There were new approaches, but the songs and melodies were still presented, expertly, as folk music. In Areas Of High Traffic we have well-known songs, songs that Damien’s known his whole life, presented using a mix of traditional and new melodies. Again, though, Damien shows these songs in a new light. He’s stretching out his arms – making room for himself, and the music comes across as if he’s totally at ease with what he’s doing. If Summer Hill was music by the warm glow of an autumn fire and soft candlelight, then this album is a brightly lit, dynamic stage show; Areas Of High Traffic is an extraordinarily brilliant album and the audience are in for a treat.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Album Launch Gigs:
11 Nov 2015 Manchester, Chorlton Irish Club, Carousel Sessions
12 Nov 2015 London, The Forge (Camden)
14 Nov 2015 Belfast, Duncairn Arts Centre
27 Nov 2015 Birmingham Tradfest