Damien O’Kane – Avenging & Bright
Pure Records – 8 December 2017
This month Coleraine native, Yorkshire resident, guitar and banjo genius Damien O’Kane is set to top off an exceptionally busy year with Avenging & Bright; an album that builds on the solid foundation laid in his remarkable 2015 album, Areas Of High Traffic (reviewed here). That album saw Damien take what he does best, adapt traditional songs to his own melodies, and stretch his creativity like never before. In 2017, however, the sharp suit and smooth chin that shone from the cover of that album are gone. Avenging & Bright proves it was no flash in the pan, but, inspired by ancient legend, Damien is back with a sword as sharp as his suit.
Damien’s love of traditional Irish songs, and especially of creating his own melodies to go with them, first bore fruit in 2010, with Summer Hill. In Areas Of High Traffic, the source material and the philosophy behind the music were the same, but the approach was markedly different. Bringing together a core band that were able to set a mix of traditional and contemporary songs in an entirely new, and exciting, light; earning Damien a nomination for Best Album at the 2016 Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Avenging & Bright opens by exploring beyond the Irish traditional canon with Boston City. There’s an immediately arresting, pulsing beat from Josh Clark‘s percussion and programming to accompany the mix of Steven Byrnes and Steven Iveson‘s electric guitars. All three provide a colourful backdrop for the comparatively laid-back approach from Damien’s vocal and acoustic tenor guitar. As the song progresses and incorporates the peerless banjo of special guest Ron Block (Alison Krauss Band), the ebb and flow is highlighted by a vocal performance from Damien that remains relaxed whatever the pace. Boston City is a strong opening and a clear indication that the band have not been resting on their laurels.
As Damien mentioned in our Folk East interview in September (read it here), much of the first half of this year was taken up working with his wife, Kate Rusby, on her exceptional 2017 Christmas album Angels & Men (see our Artist of the Month for December). In addition to touring with Kate’s band, producing Angels & Men, and Kate’s superb 2016 album Life In A Paper Boat, he’s also been touring in his own right, performing the songs from Areas Of High Traffic with a full band; but also with a more stripped-back approach, in a trio alongside guitarists Steve Iveson and Steven Byrnes.
The approach on Avenging & Bright could never be described as stripped-back, although among the complex and exquisitely produced layers of sound there’s still room for some more gentle moments, especially when Kate Rusby provides the backing vocals for her own song, Lately. Featuring a hypnotic duet of electric tenor guitar from Damien and Steven Byrnes, Kate’s song, from her 2010 album, Make The Light, flows along very, very gently and could almost have been written for Damien’s engaging Irish vocal. Paul Brady‘s is the best-known version of Seán McBride’s song of warm welcomes, The Homes of Donegal. Light electric guitar provides a soothing opening voice for the melody before Damien’s vocal takes up the song, and the warmth of the lyrics is reflected in the richness of bass and keyboards.
It’s clear from those few examples that as well as being comfortable using the band’s expansive settings for a gentle approach, Damien’s also happy to take on songs from contemporary songwriters. Perhaps the most impressive example on the album is his cover of January Man, by Derbyshire singer, folklorist and master drystone waller, Dave Goulder. The many versions of this song have always had a sense of latent power about them; after a soft, choppy electric guitar for the opening, Damien gradually unleashes that power towards an epic closing sequence with a decent measure of reverb. The album’s title track reaches a little further back. Avenging & Bright takes 19th Century poet Thomas Moore’s ballad on a cantering, dramatic journey. The song is based on the story of The Three Sons of Usnach, often known in Scotland as Deirdre Of The Sorrows. Part of the great Cuchulain of Muirthemne, the story has also inspired the album’s artwork. For the song itself, there’s that same, sparkling duet of electric tenor guitars, a solid backing from Anthony Davis’ keyboards, Josh Clark’s percussion and Steven Iveson’s rhythm guitar – every bit as fascinating as the legend.
Avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin,
On him who the brave sons of Usna betray’d!
For ev’ry fond eye he hath waken’d a tear in,
A drop from his heart-wounds shall weep o’er her blade!
The lure of those traditional Irish songs that have fascinated Damien since his younger days in the O’Kane Family Band are still very much in evidence. His ability to not only provide these songs with a new melody but to take that melody on a musical adventure remains, for the listener, one of the most rewarding aspects of Avenging & Bright. That reward is enhanced when Damien is joined by gifted Dingle singer/song writer Pauline Scanlon for Poor Stranger (Watch the video premiere below), set among Iveson’s gently cascading guitar and with a soft but sure backbeat.
Another special guest is County Armagh musician and painter Barry Kerr, who drops by to add vocal depth to the exuberant All Among The Barley. Many’s The Night is a lively song of clandestine love with an immediate sense of mirth, a quiet banjo, and beautifully crisp acoustic guitar; and the gentle guitars complement Damien’s soft vocal for Bright Flowers, a song full of Irish Pride.
Dear Erin! Type of thee, is thy own shamrock leaf
Peerless in liberty, peerless in joy or grief
If thou hast ever worn, the dread oppressor’s chain
He knew by thy mute scorn
Thou wouldst be free again
Thou wouldst be free again
Damien and the band have also recorded two instrumental tracks for the album – each of them a joy to hear. The opening reel in Castle Kelly’s is picked on electric guitar amid soft keys, echoing Arty McGlynn’s unconventional approach of 1989. Damien’s banjo joins in by degrees and soon guitar and banjo are providing a perfectly synchronised and delightfully laid back performance. Dancing In Puddles is Damien’s own tune in celebration of daughter Daisy’s love of a certain cartoon pig, and sees Ron Block return to the studio for a banjo duet with Damien, in a gorgeous instrumental round that closes the album with a warm sigh and a glad heart.
Areas Of High Traffic was a truly ground-breaking album, and it made such an impact I think few could have predicted a follow-up in a similar vein. Avenging & Bright, though, manages exactly that. It makes the most of not only Damien’s own talent as a tunesmith, musician, producer and singer; but also the talents of his band as individuals, and as a single, creative unit. This crossover between folk, pop and electronica is bursting with confidence, and rightly so. Once again Damien O’Kane has recorded an album so highly polished it shines, it dazzles.
Damien and his band make their debut Celtic Connections appearance on Thursday, February 1st at Glasgow’s Drygate Brewery before heading to The Forge, Basingstoke on February 22nd, and Chapel Arts Centre, Bath on February 23rd.
Damien will also be touring the UK with Ron block in July / August next year.
Head over to Damien’s website for full details of his tour dates where there’s also a free track download of Poor Stranger.