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Damien O’Kane Summer Hill Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Suggests that here is a folk family with a long, bright future.

Jude Rogers 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.

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