‘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.
‘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’.
MARK RADCLIFFE, BBC RADIO 2/6MUSIC
'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.'
LYNETTE FAY, BBC RADIO ULSTER