For those of a certain age, the name Raphael Doyle may be familiar. As a troubled teenager, he left County Antrim and ended up at the Finchden Manor community in Kent where, on his first day, he was shown around by a boy called Tom Robinson. Here they bonded over a shared love of Dylan and blues, formed a band and started writing. A visit by the legendary Alexis Korner led to his becoming their unofficial mentor, Four years later, in 1973, now living in London, the pair joined forces with Hereward Kaye to become Café Society, their debut album being produced by Ray Davies. However, midway through work on their second album Robinson left and the band ground to a halt.
Raphael Doyle’s subsequent career foundered in a mix of alcohol and stage fright, jobbing with an assortment of acts and turning to storytelling. Last year he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, the degenerative muscle-wasting illness, and was persuaded by Robinson and his son Louis Doyle to set about recording a definitive album, essentially as his legacy. Recruiting Gerry Diver as producer and with both Louis (who co-wrote several numbers) and Robinson on board, along with Lisa Knapp on backing vocals, things began to slot into place as the songs documenting “a messy life” took shape, the end result being Never Closer, titled after a poem by Seamus Heaney (“When all the others were away at Mass”).
Backed by drone and Uillean pipes, the music composed by Gerry Diver, it’s one of Doyle’s own poems that opens proceedings, the raw confessional eight-minute spoken word I Come From Ireland. The first of the songs comes with the simple, wistful acoustic finger picked We’ll All Get Together Again’s celebration of family, friends and community and the fact that life will go on. This gives way to the fuller arrangement of the bluesy folk Kiltermon with its snapping drum beat, circling guitar motif and memories of life in the Co.Tyrone small town. His roots are there too on the atmospheric Kerry, a love song to Country Kerry, although the lyrics could just as easily be read as about a woman.
His brogue evident, Raphael Doyle has a thickly warm voice redolent of malt and cigarette smoke, at times reminiscent of a deeper toned Christy Moore. It brings both a relaxed, intimate feel and emotional depth to the songs, most notably on Rose, which, with music by Diver, is a sparse, piano-accompanied softly waltzing, country-tinged love letter to his wife of some 45 years.
There are two covers, first up being The Band’s The Shape I’m In, taken at a slower marching beat, its underlying theme of mortality taking on a decidedly personal relevance as the vocals build in power and strength, complemented by brief electric guitar barbs. The second shares a connection, being a simple acoustic guitar backed take of Bob Dylan’s Dream that hangs heavy with its reflection on years passed and a life lived, the line about friends “I’ll never see again” taking on added poignancy.
There’s also two contributions from his erstwhile Café Society colleagues. Robinson features on the swirling waltz of Frankie with its distant, echoey whistling fade out, while Kaye appears on the uptempo folk-rock swagger Feet On The Floor with its immensely catchy chorus. The punchy dynamic here also informs The Touch of Our Hands, a song you could hear The Mavericks covering.
Never Closer ends on strikingly contrastive notes. Co-penned by Louis, and underpinned with throbbing bass and throaty guitar Live The Game is a steam hammer rhythm blues number hued with traditional folk colours, while the 50 second Coda is a simple acoustic strum directed at wife and family.
Raphael Doyle turned 64 in January and thankfully, unlike the sad recent case of Bap Kennedy, Never Closer was completed and is now released while he’s still with us and able to appreciate the response it is generating. Not because of his health, but because it is a truly excellent piece of work from a man who finally found the self-confidence to believe in himself and the music he makes. We are all the richer for it.
Never Closer is Out Now on Cooking Vinyl