Areas of High Traffic
‘Best Folk Music Albums of 2015’
DAMIEN O’KANE: AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC (PURE RECORDS)
It’s bold to take on a traditional Irish gem such as I Am A Youth (think of Paul Brady’s lovely classic version) but Damien O’Kane weaves it into something modern, melodic and sparkling in his second solo album. The Coleraine singer has a sweet bass voice and he brings out all the emotion from the lovely song Don’t let Me Come Home A Stranger. O’Kane duets with his wife Kate Rusby on The Banks of the Bann and there is also a guest appearance from the banjo maestro Ron Block (Union Station), who trades licks with O’Kane on an upbeat instrumental. A special mention too, for Waterford percussionist Cormac Byrne, whose skill and intuition are integral to folk-pop that is Irish music for the 21st century.
DAMIEN O’KANE: AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC Review – Irish songs in bold new areas
Damien O’Kane is best known to folk audiences for his excellent guitar and banjo work, backing his wife, Kate Rusby. But now comes a confident and bravely original second solo album (or third if you count his collaboration with David Kosky) that promises to transform his career. He’s a thoughtful and powerful singer with a fine Ulster brogue, who specialises in reworking mostly traditional Irish songs with bold new settings. So his sturdy treatment of The Blacksmith is enlivened by startling percussion work from Cormac Byrne, while The Banks of the Bann is treated to a new melody, lush keyboard and guitar backing, and added vocals from Rusby. Half of the songs deal with emigration from Ireland and include a powerful new treatment of Erin’s Lovely Home that switches from banjo-backed lament to percussive stomp. An inventive set that could well become a crossover commercial success.
CD OF THE WEEK
Areas Of High Traffic
Ulsterman O’Kane’s debut album, Summer Hill, was impassioned, nostalgic and beautifully played. Five years on this follow-up is as magnificent a re-imagining of traditional folk as you are likely to hear. From the opening ‘Til Next Market Day, with its haunting introduction, chunky beats and O’Kane’s rich, mellifluous voice this set mixes folk, jazz and electronica with not a trace of gimmickry. The lad from Coleraine done good.
Areas of High Traffic is the follow up to Damien’s 2010 album Summer Hill. This album sees Damien tackling some of the most popular and iconic trad Irish songs. Simply put, many of these iconic songs are so over done that O’Kane has avoided them for years, yet his love for them has drawn him back. Damien doesn’t do ordinary, so in the process of approaching, arranging and producing these trad gems he has ripped up the rulebook and got right to the core of them.
The arrangements are a melting pot of contemporary influences, O’Kane moulds it all into an energised album. It also feels like the most honest album he has produced, it’s a record that says ‘this is me, this is my Ireland, my heritage and my celebration.’
Well known songs like The Blacksmith, Erin’s Lovely Home and The Banks of the Bann are approached from a totally different angle. That in itself makes for a good album, but what makes it great is his utter and complete connection to the material. There is an empathy at work here that finds new depths in the material, and one suspects within O’Kane himself.
There are two original tunes by O’Kane on the album, The Goddaughter Part 1 and Interlude for Mama, which both showcase his originality and ability beautifully. The band he has assembled is superb; Steve Iveson on guitar, Anthony Davis on keyboards, Cormac Byrne on percussion plus of course Damien’s own not inconsiderable instrumental skills.
It’s a bold album, full of invention and twists that makes it so much more than just an album of popular trad material. Let’s hope he doesn’t leave it another five years before following up this one!
Yorkshire-based Ulsterman Damien O’Kane is a familiar name from his key role alongside his wife, Kate Rusby, in her band, as well as for previous incarnations of Anglo-Irish band Flook and his duo with accordionist Shona Kipling. His first solo album since 2010’s Summer Hill finds him in territory that’s both familiar and utterly foreign. On the one hand, he delves here deeply and respectfully into traditional material like ‘The Blacksmith’ and ‘I Am a Youth’, the kind of songs that, by his own admission, are so iconic that he had hitherto ‘avoided them like the plague.’
On the other hand, he does so in a musically adventurous manner, fearlessly embracing a sophisticated mix of jazz, rock and world influences that may well raise the hackles of purists, Rusby’s voice is a perfect fit for O’Kanes sweetly-rugged vocals. album’s only contemporary song, Robin Williams and Jerome Clark’s poignant ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger’, was her suggestion and fits perfectly with the album’s pervading themes of emigration and nostalgia. She also contributes predictably lovely harmony vocals to ‘The Banks of the Bann’. O’Kane’s brand-new, and equally lovely, tune is demonstrative of the album’s engaging mixture of the beloved old with the bracingly new.
The Musician (MU MAGAZINE) – ‘STAND OUT ALBUM’ – Winter 2015
We have chosen two albums that stand out from the crowd and have established themselves as ‘top pick’ favourites on our playlists.
Damien’s background encompasses both traditional and contemporary styles, which has proved perfect for his latest album – a set of standards revisited from a modern standpoint. Damien presents The Blacksmith, The Maid Of Seventeen, I Am A Youth and more. Beguiling. damienokane.co.uk
FOLK WORDS by Tim Collins – ‘ALBUM OF THE MONTH’ November 2015
‘Areas of High Traffic’ by Damien O’Kane “…destined to become a classic”
With a fine understanding of tradition and an equally fine ability to expand with a contemporary touch, Damien O’Kane creates an ancient and modern folk-fusion without a visible seam, on his latest album, ‘Areas of High Traffic’. The result is an impressive interpretation of heritage allied to innovation. There is of course, the foundation of his Northern Irish homeland running through his music, there’s also the fearlessness to augment convention and in doing so turn out something fresh and new.
Choosing some fine traditional Irish classics, O’Kane is unafraid to write his own tunes to re-map the entire feel of the song. Listen to the bucolic love song ‘The Maid of Seventeen’, the emigrant ballad ‘The Close of an Irish Day’ or the iconic ‘The Banks of The Bann’ to hear just how superbly he works his alchemy. Without doubt, the man possesses a voice that brings out pure meaning from the lyrics in a way that pours life into the songs. The desolate emotion of ‘Erin’s Lovely Home’ and ‘The Green Fields of America’ demand your attention, as do the subtle but nonetheless sparkling renditions with ‘‘Til Next Market Day’ and ‘The Blacksmith’. For good measure, O’Kane includes two self-penned instrumentals with the liquid banjo of ‘The Goddaughter (part1)’ and the delightfully dreamy ‘Interlude For Mama’.
I feel in no danger of going out on a limb by saying that without doubt ‘Areas of High Traffic’ is destined to become a classic.
Playing on ‘Areas of High Traffic’ are Damien O’Kane (vocals, guitars, tenor guitars, banjo) Cormac Byrne (drums, percussion) Anthony Davis (Roland keyboards, bass, synths, piano, electric piano, organ) Steven Iveson (electric guitar) with guest appearances by Kate Rusby (vocals) and Ron Block (banjo). Find the man and his music here: damienokane.co.uk
DAMIEN O’KANE Areas Of High Traffic
Damien O’Kane has been keeping a relatively low profile over recent years; in – fact, Areas Of High Traffic is his first solo album in five years. Perhaps marriage and fatherhood have proved distractions enough.
The majority of the songs here are traditional and mostly from Northern Ireland although Damien has written new music for a good many of them. The one interloper is ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home A Stranger’ by Robin Williams and Jerome Clark and it fits perfectly with the style that Damien has adopted. His core band is Steven Iveson on electric guitar, Anthony Davis on bass and all manner of keyboards, and Cormac Byre on drums and percussion.
In some ways it’s Byrne who sets the tone as his ‘bangy things’ often lead the charge while Damien’s acoustic guitars and banjo solo over handclaps and other percussive sounds. This band could play rock’n’roll With no problem and their arrangements have Often crafted refrains for songs that didn’t have them before, putting a modern gloss on the old songs.
These are often songs of nostalgia and loss of homeland but Damien has avoided sentimentality, and ‘The Next Market Day’ and ‘The Maid Of Seventeen’ both take a surprisingly modern attitude to sex. These songs still have something to say to the 21st century.
Damien O’Kane and Conor O’Sullivan are two Irish maverick talents with more than a share of commonality, from Ulster and Munster respectively, they sing and play guitar and tenor banjo and possess a creative approach to presenting their music.
Damien O’Kane from Coleraine, Co Derry, Northern Ireland is better known to many for his recent musical exploits with Kate Rusby, but is a finely-tuned instrumentalist and an assured singer. His second solo album Areas Of High Traffic sees him interpreting some classic Irish folk ballads such as Next Market Day, I Am A Youth and The Green Fields Of America among them. However daunting the prospect of re-interpreting iconic material in contemporary fashion may be, the task of providing fresh arrangements which disallow obvious comparison is an even more daunting yet necessary task and one that here mercifully works. Equipped with a sympathetic band, O’Kane provides some startlingly radical interpretations that coast past ambient, new age, and post rock territories yet retain the rustic charm and essence of the source material. The Maid Of Seventeen has muscular folk-rock urgency behind his cool laconic yet impassioned vocals and the Banks Of The Bann has Kate Rusby adding vocal support to a laid-back, chilled-out treatment. The Blacksmith is subject to an ambient/rock reading with rippling electric guitars and Ron Block’s fumbling banjo. The ensemble arrangements are taut and fussy yet allow sufficient space for his vocals to keep their Ulster burr while gliding effortlessly within the sonic palette, adding restrained poignancy. His instrumental abilities shine on The Goddaughter – Part1 and Interlude For Mama.
Areas Of High Traffic is a collection that should be filed under groundbreaking.
ACOUSTIC MAGAZINE – January 2016
Something of a family affair: Damien is married to Kate Rusby, plays guitar in her band and this release — his second solo outing — is produced by himself. So given that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise to find that this is a great album. Comprised of traditional songs, to many of which Damien has written new melodies, his approach is a perfect foil for his band’s stunning arrangements, which often veer towards jazz more than any traditional Irish influence. And it works. Damien’s rich Irish voice, something that seems to delve into his very soul, makes traditional songs like ‘The Next Market Day’ absolute gems. JP
BRIGHT YOUNG FOLK
It’s been a long time coming but finally it’s here. Damien O’Kane’s second album, Areas of High Traffic (his first for five years), is a radical departure in style from his first, Summer Hill. This, says O’Kane, is the album he’s always wanted to make.
Over the course of around an hour O’Kane takes some of the most well-known songs from the Irish traditional repertoire and brings them kicking and screaming into the present day.
O’Kane is helped in this project by three top-class musicians who are allowed the freedom to really stretch out and explore the nuances of these songs and tunes.
The sound O’Kane is going for is immediately apparent in the first track ’Till Next Market Day’. The rippling guitar of Steve Iveson is supported by lush synth chords and the rock-solid drumming of Cormac Byrne. The real surprise is the heavily processed and layered voice of O’Kane which take the track out of the realm of folk-rock and into another world entirely.
The lyrics of five of the songs on this album are taken from one source, ’Folk Singing in North Derry: Shamrock, Rose and Thistle’. One of these pieces, The Maid of Seventeen (a simple pastoral love song) is turned, by the four musicians, into a six minute rock/jazz number.
The second half of the album is much the stronger. The Banks of the Bann is a sweet love song made special by gorgeous guitar playing and vocal support by O’Kane’s wife, Kate Rusby.
The Goddaughter-Part 1 lets Damien, after a slightly too long guitar introduction, let rip on his banjo in a splendid self-written tune. This is followed by Interlude for Mama, a short piece dedicated to O’Kane’s mother which leads into I am a Youth. This song, about a young man’s promise to be faithful to his girlfriend whilst in America, is elegant in its simplicity.
Areas of High Traffic is not a perfect album. For this reviewer, there’s an over-reliance on sonic effects and vocal processing. However, in an increasingly homogenised commercial folk scene, such a bold risk-taking recording is to be applauded.
Listen with open ears.
LIVING TRADITION MAGAZINE
December Issue 2015
It’s been a while since Damien released his first solo album (Summer Hill), which proved beyond doubt that he’s much more than a skilful banjo player, a fine singer, and (still) an important member of Kate Rusby’s band. Summer Hill revealed his inherent talent for adapting (and, in so doing, providing new and stimulating melodies for) traditional songs, and would have proved a hard act to follow by any standards – and yet he’s definitely eclipsed that with this generous new collection, which builds on these talents yet informs them with an even more pronounced contemporary sensibility in accessible, well-upholstered settings that take a carefully blended approach to the accompanimental role. A specific case in point is The Maid Of Seventeen, featuring soft-textured keyboards (Anthony Davis) and jazz-inflected electric guitar (Steven Iveson), but when Damien then adds his rippling, inventive banjo to the mix, the effect is even more scintillating, as on The Close Of An Irish Day (which also showcases Cormac Byrne’s intricate percussion inventiveness).
There’s a lot going on in Damien’s creatively layered settings, and the slightly laid-back nature of some of the rhythmic input can be deceptive and require further detailed listening. And Damien’s willingness to revisit well-worn songs and invest them with new meaning through provision of an entirely new melody is nowhere better demonstrated than on The Banks Of The Bann (where, incidentally, his voice is supplemented by that of wife, Kate, herself). Just over halfway through the disc, we’re treated to a pair of instrumental tracks, of which The Goddaughter Part 1 is a mesmeric uptempo jazz-rock-style piece with a tricky time-signature (and suitably breathless banjo part!) and Interlude For Mama is an affectionate (if maybe unduly brief) tribute to a special lady. These tracks, like the rest of the album, are filled with all the warmth and passion that Damien and his crew can muster. It’s slick too, sure, but it feels right.
With a particularly strong sense of his Northern Irish roots, Damien O’Kane delivers an excellent album of traditional material, each selection crafted with a contemporary feel and tasteful arrangement. The songs, a good few of which derive from the Shamrock, Rose and Thistle collection, a noted source covering the folk singing traditions of North Derry, including rather gracefully rendered readings of The Maid of Seventeen, The Close of an Irish Day and most notably The Banks of the Bann, a song which O’Kane takes enormous pride in, having been raised by those very banks. One or two of the songs have clearly been learned from the inspirational collection of Planxty, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady LPs that presumably took pride of place in the O’Kane home during those formative years. I am a Youth, is treated to the respect it thoroughly deserves, a song previously performed by Brady in those much missed days before he went off to be a transatlantic pop star. With a mature arrangement together with some empathetic musicianship, the song reaches the present day whilst losing none of its original power. With themes of identity, emigration, homesickness and nostalgia, Damien O’Kane creates a soundscape that truly honours his birth right. Wrapped in a cover that could for all intents and purposes be the new Tom Cruise action movie poster, the album sees O’Kane surrounded by a choice gathering of musicians and technicians, including Cormac Byrne on drums and percussion, Steven Iveson on guitar, Anthony Davis on keyboards and bass and Joe Rusby assisting with production, as well as one or two guest appearances by Kate Rusby and Union Station’s Ron Block on banjo. A top notch album for sure.
TOTAL MUSIC MAGAZINE
Almost didn’t listen to this due to the truly dreadful cover which really couldn’t be farther removed from what is to be found within. That said how you are supposed to dress an album of thoroughly modern folk music is not an easy call as this really does defy description. Closest relatives would be the mighty Show Of Hands, but even they stay closer to their folk roots than O’Kane whose instrumentation and polished arrangement choices consistently confound and delight (not unlike the Unthanks) but make no mistake this is modern folk music, and really rather beautiful modern folk music at that.
SHIRE FOLK MAGAZINE – JAN/FEB 2016
Damien O’Kane is best known for guitar and banjo work with his wife, Kate Rusby, and her band. His first solo album, Summerhill, was released in 2010. Since then, marriage and two children have undoubtedly taken priority so it has taken until now for the release of this second album, and it’s well worth waiting for.
Damien grew up in Coleraine, Co. Derry in a household where he was immersed in folk music. He has bravely taken traditional songs and written new music for them, with creatively layered settings, giving them a contemporary feel. The band he has assembled is superb, Steve Iveson (electric guitar), Anthony Davis (keyboards), and Cormac Byrne (drums and percussion). We have Damien’s skills on guitar, tenor guitar and banjo, plus a powerful Irish voice. There are guest appearances by Kate Rusby and Ron Block on banjo. So much talent!
‘l am a Youth’ (‘a song from my childhood musical osmosis’), previously sung so powerfully by Paul Brady, is given a modern arrangement and the band successfully make it their own. ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger’, by Robin Williams and Jerome Clark, is the one contemporary song. The arrangement is both melancholic and atmospheric.
Damien came to England to study for the Folk and Traditional Music degree in Newcastle. Leaving home allowed him to empathise with the many Irish songs about emigration. A promotional video on YouTube gives a valuable insight into what makes them all tick. A highly recommended album.
WELSH COUNTRY MAGAZINE – JAN/FEB 2016
O’Kane, a Yorkshire-based Ulsterman has taken five years to deliver his first solo album, which he produced with help from Joe Rusby. He seems to be paying homage to his homeland, but there’s no doubt he’s Irish when you listen to his wonderful rich brogue. An outstanding guitar and banjo player, O’Kane is now a vital member of The Kate Rusby Band. Many songs are from the roots of Irish music and his versions of ‘The Blacksmith’ and ‘I Am a Youth’ are brilliantly original. I also enjoyed two of his own tracks, coming from his heart, ‘The Goddaughter Part 1’ and the ‘Interlude for Mama’.
LOUDER THAN WAR
Pure Records is proud to release – the third solo album from the other half of their flagship artist. Sounds a bit cryptic but Damien O’Kane, to his credit, is more often than not associated with his work as producer, arranger, guitarist/banjo player and husband (if that’s classed as work) of folk music icon Kate Rusby. He occasionally does his own thing too.
Damien’s first two albums ably demonstrated two sides of the same coin. While his 2010 debut, ‘Summer Hill’ focussed more on songs, the follow up recorded a year later with David Kosky and titled ‘The Mystery Inch’ (and I still haven’t worked out what it is despite the apparent clues on the album cover, yet suspect it may be something a bit saucy) showcased his instrumental prowess with a cluster of tunes and sets to tear through with banjo and guitar.
And while we’re on the subject of album covers, a first glance ‘Areas Of High Traffic’ may remind observers with wider musical tastes of the Hipgnosis sleeve for Yes’ 1977 ‘Going For The One’ – all gleaming towers disappearing into the sky, but instead of the butt naked guy on the Yes album, you get Damien, dressed in a sharp suit and freshly barbered. Enough of a clue to suggest this is a contemporary new vision and style yet cut very much from the same cloth and very much worth the wait for new product.
Given the shift in image in the packaging, anyone expecting more of the same might have a pleasant surprise, shock even, on a first play through. Damien often refers to himself as a tunesmith, which is exactly what he does here yet it’s a long way from the rootsy trio he often plays in accompanied by John Joe Kelly and Ed Boyd. In fact while John Joe might not be on the album (chorus of boos and sighs) the percussion is handled by Cormac Byrne (large cheer) – it’s akin to keeping Lionel Messi on the subs bench. Add the significant impact of Steve Iveson’s electric guitar which is let loose with all sorts of textures and gives the collection of songs a distinctively modern coating. Anthony Davis brings his keyboards along, contributing another concession to modern edge.
Then of course, there’s Damien’s rich Northern Irish brogue – a classic example of how folk singers rely on their accents to carry the authenticity of a song. All combine to bring a unique take on a set of songs which are collected from traditional sources and given a shiny new interpretation. When he sings of ‘a new tune to learn’ in opening song ‘’Til Next Market Day’, he points out the ambiguity of the word ‘tune’ – after all it is a folk song and needs some smut but it sets the bar for what’s about to follow and the song sets the scene for a journey which is part travelogue, part nostalgia with an, at times, deeply personal perspective.
He’s described ‘The Blacksmith’ and ‘I Am A Youth’ as iconic or as classic – so much so that he’s seen that as a good enough reason to leave them be – until now. The former is a perfect example of Iveson’s cascading guitar notes laying down the sort of pattern that you might associate with someone like Robert Fripp and the first indication that the musical style is far from the expected. It almost verges on funk at times, and followed by the brooding presence and smooth sleaze of ‘Maid At Seventeen’ which builds to a pacey close – hard to imagine that we’re working with traditional folk songs here.
The closest things come to something sounding akin to a traditional folk tune is the ‘Close Of An Irish Day’, a song which carries the strong lyrical theme of the album. Naturally, it’s not as you’d expect – again, bubbling percussive strings and vocal echoes with Cormac Byrne’s innovative percussion move the song into another dimension – indeed there’s a rare groove not often associated with the genre which is at its strongest here but is also a feature of how the musicians work together.
Some might grumble that there’s not enough of Damien’s trademark banjo and as a concession he lets rip on ‘The Goddaughter – part 1’, where Iveson’s Frippertronics soon give way to the familiar O’Kane banjo pick and pluck – just a reminder of Damien doing what he does best and it’s akin to welcoming an old friend who’s not been round a while. Let’s face it, if you see Led Zeppelin, you want them to play ‘Stairway’ don’t you, yet for all the twists and turns, the highlights come in the form of a couple of lower key numbers.
‘Banks Of The Bann’ he’s been playing for a while but the recorded version in the new band guise is a revelation. It features a subtle guest vocal from Kate Rusby and along with ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home A Stranger’ forms a stunning pairing which are the core of the album lyrically and in their sentiment. You feel that Damien has a real empathy in delivering the lyric to both and he absolutely nails them. The latter song was bought to the table by Kate and the one real contemporary song on the album (by Robin Williams and Jerome Clark) is indeed one which would suit her as well – in fact, here’s a marketing ploy – an EP with the ‘joint’ version, and then two tracks of Damien and Kate each doing a solo version; Kate’s with a nice bit of that brass backing that she tends to favour now and again.
‘Areas Of High Traffic’ takes a new direction in which the studio polish and arrangements and stellar performances are key factors yet at the core of the album Damien O’Kane remains embedded firmly in his roots.
FOLK RADIO UK – November 2015
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.
You may think you know the music on Barnsley-based Ulsterman Damien O’Kane but his inspirational new album may make you think again.
Areas Of High Traffic – with its themes of emigration and nostalgia – is his first solo album in five years, following on from Summer Hill in 2010. It sees O’Kane throwing in a number of curveballs, aided and abetted by his band – Steven Iveson on electric guitars, Anthony Davis on keyboards, synths and pads, percussionist Cormac Byrne and a guest appearance on one track by American bluegrass banjo wizard Ron Block.
Slickly produced by O’Kane – who is married to Barnsley folk star Kate Rusby – and assisted by brother-in-law Joe Rusby, it is a homage to his native Northern Ireland. O’Kane cherry picks traditional song, moulding them into something more contemporary, engaging and stirring – all delivered in his rich Irish brogue.
An outstanding banjo and guitar player and now a vital member of The Kate Rusby band, Damien’s previous incarnations have included the duo partnership with accordionist Shona Kipling and his time as a member of Anglo/Irish band Flook, as well as the release of an instrumental album with David Kosky.
On Areas Of High Traffic, he takes songs from the bedrock of Irish music and revisits them in a previously untapped, unconventional way.
Damien said, “Songs like The Blacksmith and I Am A Youth are so iconic, i’ve avoided them like the plague. But i’ve always loved them and i decided i had to overcome this fear of the ‘don’t touch’ songs. Singing them takes me back home.
“I decided i wouldn’t set any boundaries and I’d perform the songs exactly how i felt right. There may be a touch of rebellion about it but i haven’t done anything just for the sake of being different. I’ve tried to get inside every song and the arrangements reflect the lyrics.”
With perfect harmony vocals from wife Kate Rusby and a new tune, he definitely puts his stamp on things with an 11-track album.
A mix of jazz, rock and world influences triggers a whole new sound to songs like Erin’s Lovely Home and The Close Of An Irish Day while the Green Fields Of America addresses Ireland’s sad history of enforced emigration.
Released on the Pure Records label on November 9, Areas Of High Traffic is traditional Irish folk for grown-ups – a roller coaster of exploration into the heart and heritage of Irish music, shaken and stirred by a master musician and vocalist.
MARK RADCLIFFE, BBC RADIO 2/6MUSIC
‘On ‘Areas of High Traffic’ Damien O’Kane has managed to create a rich and innovative sonic palette without sacrificing any of his roots and traditional values. The electric guitars of Steven Iveson are particularly atmospheric, especially when blended with exquisitely measured percussion.
In addition, Damien’s vocal performances are the best he’s yet captured. All in all, a triumph. I love it’.
LYNETTE FAY – BBC Radio Ulster, Belfast
‘Damien’s new collection of songs (AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC) and tunes is the perfect compliment to his previous work. Again he draws from songs of his native Ulster and chooses a few songs of emigration which gives further poignancy, given that he is an emigrant himself. The arrangements are progressive as we’ve become to expect from Damien. He’s also not afraid of taking on the ‘big’ songs and his version of ‘I’m a Youth that’s inclined to ramble’ which is complimented with a magnificent hypnotic soundscape, is the stand out piece of this body of work. A triumph from one of Ulster’s finest.’
‘Areas Of High Traffic’ is an extraordinary album. But then, Damien O’Kane is an extraordinary musician.
An immense banjo player. An accomplished, versatile guitarist. A seriously good singer. A naturally inventive arranger. An inveterate musical explorer. A producer. A bandleader. A provocatively original interpreter of folk song.
And when all the pieces are fitted together with unconditional love, care and attention to detail, the results are spectacular.
Growing up in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, he was absorbed by traditional music from day one, becoming impossibly adept on banjo at an absurdly young age; and earning his spurs as a 13-year-old playing with his parents and siblings in the O’Kane Family Band – or, as they were known locally – “the Von Trapps of Coleraine”.
He’s come a long way since then, of course, initially making his mark in earnest in a successful duo with Shona Kipling and then teaming up with Flook before being joining Kate Rusby’s band, which has proved a joyously productive partnership in more ways than one for them both.
The songs on ‘Area Of High Traffic’ are largely rooted in his home land in the north of Ireland and several have long become part of the furniture of Irish music and been recorded numerous times through the years.
But never like this.
“Songs like ‘The Blacksmith’ and ‘I Am A Youth’ are so iconic I’ve always avoided them like the plague,” says the genial Damien. “But I’ve always loved them – they are great songs – and I decided I had to overcome this fear of ‘don’t touch’ songs. Singing them takes me back home. But I’m not trying to be Paul Brady or Andy Irvine, I do them my way.”
And Damien O’Kane’s way is very different to anything that’s gone before.
Steeped in tradition he may be, but he also has a thoroughly modern take on folk song and, in league with his outstanding co-conspirators (Steve Iveson on electric guitar, Anthony Davis on keyboards and Cormac Byrne on percussion), he brings a deluge of fresh ideas and radically original arrangements to the table.
“With this album I decided I wouldn’t set any boundaries and I’d do the songs exactly the way I wanted. There may be a little bit of rebellion about it, but I haven’t done anything for the sake of being different. I’ve tried to get inside every song and the arrangements reflect the words. I wouldn’t put a happy chord on a sad bit. The lyrics are the most important thing.”
With sumptuous harmony vocals from Kate Rusby and a brand new tune, he virtually re-invents the famous song ‘The Banks Of The Bann’; while the mix of jazz, rock and world music influences applied by Iveson, Davis and Byrne bring a whole new feel to big songs like ‘The Close Of An Irish Day’, ‘Erin’s Lovely Home’ and ‘The Green Fields Of America’, which emotively address the human tragedy of Ireland’s sad history of enforced emigration.
This is a theme underlined by the beautiful melancholia and fragile sensibility of the album’s one completely contemporary song ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home A Stranger’ (by Robin Williams and Jerome Clark).
Throw in a guest appearance by American bluegrass banjo wizard Ron Block (on ‘The Blacksmith’) and Damien’s dazzling playing on his own rousing tune ‘The Goddaughter Part 1’ and you have a thoughtful, provocative, uplifting and inspirational collection which surely marks O’Kane’s emergence as one of the most vital talents in modern folk music.