IRISH MUSIC MAGAZINE March 2011
This CD has been out for the best part of the year; This is good, very good, and so good in fact that it has been in my car CD player for the past three months, over the best part of 5000 miles I’m still hearing something new every time I play it.
Damien O’Kane is probably best-known as a banjo player and he chooses that instrument to feature heavily on Summer Hill, but here’s the surprise, he as a wonderful folk voice, a clear tenor that carries a tune easily and expresses emotions naturally. He sings in his own accent and what we have here are Northern Irish songs sung in an Ulster brogue, and it works. Why? For my tuppence it’s because he shares the same intonation as the countless number of nameless folk song makers whose accents pepper the ballads.
Now that would be interesting in its self, ‘authentic local singer sings authentic local songs’ but the genius here is the musicality of the project. Damien’s main instrument is the banjo and there could have been a tendency to over emboss the tunes. The banjo has good attack but poor sustain, and most players get round that technical difficulty by adding in more notes to fill the gaps. Damien thinks differently, he builds the songs up around what would in the rock world be called riffs, musical motifs that add a ground-work over which his songs can soar.
He’s joined by some of the best UK based folk musicians who fill out that groove, and if one word sums up the album it is groove. Those collaborators include: Kate Rusby, (vocals), David Kosky (guitar), Michael McGoldrick (flute, whistle), Andy Seward (double bass), John-Joe Kelly (bodhrán), Aaron Jones (bouzouki), Cormac Byrne (percussion), Duncan Lyall (double bass), Ian Carr (guitar), James Mackintosh (percussion), Donald Grant (fiddle), Thea Speirs (fiddle), Rachel Jones (viola), Lucy Payne (cello), Anthony Davis (piano, keyboards) and Colette O’Kane (vocals).
As for the material, it’s all good, and full of ambition, he tackles songs that used to belong to icons, The Sun Is Burning from Luke Kelly and Paul Brady’s version of Lough Erne Shore (this has a sparse 30 second intro and it’s a real winner). Probably the best and most surprising vocal CD of 2010 and one that will have a very long life. I can’t wait to get in the car and play it again.
I love it Damien but it’s burning too much diesel.
SUNDAY EXPRESS May 2010
SUMMER HILL Damien O’Kane (Pure Records) ✭✭✭✭✩
Born into a musical family in County Derry, 31-year-old O’Kane is an outstanding banjo player but it is superb vocal phrasings that make this solo debut such an unalloyed delight. On the nostalgia-drenched title track and powerful The Breaking of Omagh Jail in particular his voice is both resonant and hypnotic. He is backed by a superb band throughout, including the acclaimed flautist Michael McGoldrick, who combines beautifully with him on O’Kane’s impassioned tribute to his home town,Farewell to Coleraine. A gorgeous record. MT
SONGLINES July 2010
Assured debut from Northern Irish multi-instrumentalist ✭✭✭✭✩
The acclaimed young singer-songwriter, guitarist and banjo player from Coleraine in Co. Derry has established his reputation with accordionist Shona Kipling and Flook, and as a member of Kate Rusby’s band.
He’s a formidable player and outstanding interpreter of songs from his native Northern Ireland – a repertoire which features strongly on Summer Hill. The album sports an A-list of guest players that includes Mancunian master flautist Michael McGoldrick, Andy Seward on double bass, and the brilliant bodhran player from McGoldrick’s band, John Joe Kelly. O’Kane’s partner, Kate Rusby, provides limpid harmony vocals on the title-track, named after a road near Coleraine and one of many evocative place name songs – ‘Strands of Milligan’, ‘Laurel Hill’, ‘Lough Erne Shore’ – that stud the album. McGoldrick’s silvery flute flashes and shimmers through ‘Milligan’ and Aaron Jones’ bouzouki weaves with O’Kane’s guitar and banjo on ‘Banks of Boyne’.
Aside from covers of Ewan MacColl, Ian Campbell and Barry Kerr, O’Kane matches his own strong, sinuous tunes with traditional lyrics to powerful effect. Banjo obsessives will delight in the multilayered fingerpicking of ‘Seasick Dee/Dee Goes to Holyhead‘, and the delicate accompaniment to the haunting ‘Lough Erne Shore’ is a high point of a remarkably warm and assured debut.
Written by Tim Cumming
FOLK RADIO UK June 2010
Given his work with Flook, Shona Kipling and, more recently, his partner Kate Rusby, I expected Damien O’Kane’s debut solo album to be a collection of perfectly executed banjo tunes with occasional song. Oh how I love to be educated. I was wrong; very, very wrong. In Summer Hill Damien has given us something rather special. Something with astute instrumentation, thoughtful arrangements and contributing musicians of the highest calibre. Summer Hill has all those things, and even more.
The Strands of Magilligan provides a strong opening to the album, with rich guitar and banjo. Damien’s voice is an asset from the first note of song. The richness and soft Irish tones are perfectly suited to the collection of songs here, and it’s quite a collection. The opening track is one of seven traditional songs on the album. For each of these Damien has written his own music and the result is comforting blend of traditional songs with a contemporary atmosphere.
There are contributions from a host of musicians, unfortunately far to many to mention, but David Kosky provides impeccable guitar support throughout and there’s also important input from Ian Carr, Michael McGoldrick is there with flute, pipe and vocals. Here and there, the most heard but least mentioned (in reviews anyway) percussionist in the land, James MacKintosh is unmistakable and John-Joe Kelly is responsible for bodhran essentials.
The title track, Summer Hill, shines out for many reasons. This song is beautifully arranged with its gently stirring tempo, hint of electric guitar and Andy Sewerd’s long, resonant bass. Within seconds you’re drawn in, mesmerized by every word of the story, every note of Damien’s music, every nuance of the arrangement. Then Kate Rusby’s harmonies start and the song moves to an even highter plane. The harmonies compliment Damien’s more robust voice perfectly and the combination is irresistible.
While the title track treats us to something gentle, sublime and wonderful Laurel Hill is evocative and compelling. Again, a traditional song with Damien’s own music (and the occasional added lyric), the song tells a story everyone who enjoys a good ballad knows. We’re still drawn in though, and long to catch every word, every moment of the story. Damien’s knowledge of his native songs, and his impressive ability to adapt them and make them his own, have done a great deal to shape the sound of this album.
Although a fine collection of beautifully adapted traditional songs, Summer Hill isn’t exclusive in its content. Raven’s Wing, by Barry Kerr, is a thought provoking song about alcoholism. Ewan MacColl’s The Lags Song deals with youth and time lost in a prison cell. The impressive instrumetation expected from Mr O’Kane himself is there in abundance too. The finest example being the adventurous multi-layered feast of pure banjo; Seasick Dee and Dee Goes to Holyhead.
There are snatches of string arrangements, such as in Farewell Coleraine, that give yet further depth and changes in direction to the album. The string quartet of Donald Grant (Fiddle), Thea Speirs (fiddle), Rachel Jones (viola) and Lucy Payne (cello) also grace the bonus track; Ian Campbell’s The Sun Is Shining. This melodic close to the album is a sing-along with Damien’s mother, Colette and Kate Rusby. The sun sets on Summer Hill with a warm glow, the lull of gentle strings, and a fine chorus of soft voices.
Damien O’Kane’s solo debut is both stirring and sensitive. His voice and song presentation are reminiscent of Paul Brady (but still very much is own), his musicianship and contributed melodies are a joy to listen to, and there’s an impresive gathering of artists to support this release. Joe Rusby’s rich production is an equally important aspect, a little over-worked on the vocals at times, I thought, but that’s more a matter of personal taste. The simple fact is that all these factors have come together to create a well crafted and highly enjoyable collection of music and song that should appeal to lovers of traditional and contemporary music alike.
Written by Neil
FROOTS MAGAZINE June 2010
From Coleraine in Co. Derry, O’Kane’s pedigree is evident the moment he starts to deliver vibrant opening track The Strands of Magilligan with a rich lilt that pitches him somewhere between two fellow Ulster-men, Paul Brady and Len Graham. Lofty names to be bracketed with but, while proving himself a dextrous accompanist on both banjo and guitar, O’Kane’s measured delivery blends well with an impressively empathetic supporting cast, who include such luminaries as Ian Carr on guitar, Mike MGoldrick on flute, Donald Grant on fiddle, Andy Seward on bass, John Joe Kelly and Cormac Byrne on bodhran and Kate Rusby on backing vocals.
Another product of Newcastle’s traditional music degree course, his reputation was initially forged in a celebrated duo with accordeonist Shona Kipling and has been enhanced by a spell with Flook and his work in the Rusby band, but the maturity of his performance on his debut solo album still comes as a surprise. He’s particularly adept on the traditional material – there’s even a touch of Andy Irvine about the persuasive way he unfolds the story of the Banks of Boyne over galloping banjo and bouzouki, while the Paul Brady comparisons loom large as he tackles Lough Erne Shore, albeit having come up with an original tune for the old song. Concentrating mostly on well-selected material from or inspired by Northern Ireland, the album has a refreshing sincerity, adopting restraint over grandstanding so that when he does let rip on banjo – as on Seasick Dee – Dee goes to Holyhead – the impact is all the greater.
He’s less convincing on Ewan MacColl’s The Lag’s Song and Ian Campbell’s anti-nuclear epic The Sun is Burning, but with harmony vocals from both is partner Kate Rusby and his mother Colette O’Kane, its emotional investment is clearly high.
Relaxed, assured and recorded with loving care O’Kane effortlessly adds his name to the proud history of outstanding Ulster singers.
Written by Colin Irwin
MAVERICK MAGAZINE 2010
Irish Banjo player sings native stories from his homeland.
Damien O’Kane is a creative musician and singer with Summer Hill being his first solo album. Focussing on songs from his native Northern Ireland, Damien’s vocals are chilling, with his Irish accent thick and strong against his sublime banjo playing. Listening to O’Kane peel melodies as fine as those on Seasick Dee and Dee goes to Holyhead, it is no wonder Damien has become a credited banjo player, labelled as one of the finest from Ireland. With a note to say this song is ‘100% banjo, no additives or preservatives,’ it is remarkable how Damien is only starting out as a soloist, with talent flowing through his fingers it would have been expected he would be a household name already.
The beautiful Summer Hill features his wife and partner Kate Rusby who offers some of the sweetest harmonies next to Damien’s powerful voice. Singing mainly traditional songs and adapting them with his own melodies, it is a treasure that Damien is willing to share these native folk tales with the rest of the world. The Breaking of Omagh Jail and Laurel Hill are two exceptional songs full of Damien’s native land bursting at the seams of the song, refreshing and lively.
Summer Hill is a joy to listen to, invigorating to the core, almost teasing us with the wonders of Ireland. Highly recommended.
Written by CB
ACOUSTIC MAGAZINE August 2010 ✭✭✭✭✩
No banjo jokes, please it can’t be argued that Damien O’Kane is anything other than one of the best players on the folk scene at the moment. Previously known for his work with Shona Kipling and a short stint with Flook, Summer Hill is his first solo release, mixing traditional and contemporary songs and some original tunes, and although accompanied by an array of impressive supporting musicians, it’s O’Kane’s voice, full of feeling, that really makes this album. It seems that the songs have been chosen for their significance to O’Kane as the sleeve notes explain, the most memorable being ‘Laurel Hill’, a much loved folk theme told from the perspective of a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo. Fantastic.
Written by Kate Lewis
BBC MUSIC REVIEW 2010
Folk songs, by their very nature, have always travelled through families, from the Carters right through to the Waterson/Carthys. Now Damien O’Kane, a blue-eyed, brown-eyed Northern Irishman, joins these ranks. His partner is Kate Rusby, whose own Mercury-nominated crossover folk records certainly set the bar high for their household. Thankfully for O’Kane, Summer Hill meets this bar beautifully.
O’Kane is best known for his exquisite banjo playing, both with accordion player Shona Kipling and supergroup Flook, winners of best group at the 2006 BBC 2 Folk Awards, and this is still very present on his debut album. But what also hits you immediately is the richness of O’Kane’s voice. It is both strong and sweet, rough and romantic, giving directness and immediacy to the old stories he has collected, many of them from the tumultuous past of his homeland. O’Kane has set seven of them to his own melodies, strengthening the link between his past and present, as well as the status of the lyrics in the Celtic folk canon.
O’Kane’s settings are largely conventional, but complementary. Strands of Magilligan, a sunny romp about an American settler in County Derry, and Dobbins Flowery Vale, a sweet lullaby about a leafy lovers retreat, are two of the most crowd-pleasing. Lough Erne Shore is one of the most effective, however, creating a sparse atmosphere around the tale of an otherworldly girl whose “cupid has led me astray”. Echoing the early work of Bert Jansch and John Martyn, it suggests that O’Kane is at his best when he is daring to experiment.
Elsewhere on Summer Hill, there are further signs of adventure. Seasick Dee – Dee Goes to Holyhead, a multi-layered banjo instrumental recorded on a laptop, is full of rhythms and sounds that resemble the stranger fringes of krautrock, which might annoy the purists. They will prefer the lolling loveliness of Trewitt Road, an air for a friend of O’Kane’s from Newcastle, which also reveals his flair for romance.
The title-track does, too. A duet with a girl who has lovely blonde tresses like so many of the girls in his songs, Kate Rusby’s soft tones provide a perfect counterpoint to O’Kane’s rougher edges. It also suggests that here is a folk family with a long, bright future.
Written by Jude Rogers 17.05.10
IRLAND JOURNAL April 2010
Damien O’Kane – Summer Hill (pure records, 12 Tracks)
About this album I can say so many nice things that I do not know where to get started. It is in any event for weeks guest in my CD player. Damien O’Kane comes from Northern Ireland, lives in England (by the way with Kate Rusby and their joint child) and in recent years has become an extremely popular musician. Not only with the Kate Rusby band, but also with Flook and Shona Kipling, he was on tour and has worked on numerous CD recordings. On his solo debut CD it is especially wonderful to hear songs, but also three instrumental pieces, all of which are really very well arranged and therefore can not simply be described as Tunesets. The songs are sung very well and are simply gorgeous instrumental interlude parts. This album features other musicians e.g. Michael McGoldrick, Ian Carr, John Joe Kelly and Aaron Jones. cool, cool, cool…