Damien O’Kane plays Cambridge – Live Review

live reviews "mournful balladry to assured folk-pop"

At first glance, this double-act of two of Ireland’s foremost folk musicians – Damien O’Kane and Daoiri Farrell – would be just another evening of roots and acoustic to grace Cambridge. What with Cambridge Live’s City Roots Festival expanding upon the work of the Cambridge Folk Festival, there is plenty of folk music to go around! Instead, the Junction 2 was treated to two very different sides of the acoustic coin: one a dry-humoured singer-bouzouki troubadour, the other a progressive, quasi-electronic take on the folk trio set-up.

The evening’s first half found the audience taken under the wing of Daoiri Farrell, a vocalist and bouzouki player who has achieved excellence on the Irish folk-singing circuit. His performance, by his own admission, was largely made up as the 45-minute set progressed, as if we were privy to an impromptu singing-circle or pub session rather than the national concert tour he was performing on. Daori’s arpeggiated bouzouki playing seamlessly intertwined traditional tunes with chordal structures that enhanced – rather than dominated – his powerful voice. This is a voice, after all, that earned him the All Ireland Champion Singer award, which is equally at home with a capella renditions of mournful ballads as with bawdy tales of boozin’. However, it was Daori’s storytelling, reverence for his musical influences and warmth as a performer that most resonated with the audience.

The Damien O’Kane Trio is led by its eponymous singer and tenor guitar/banjo player, an exponent of the Bright Young Folk movement alongside the likes of Cara Dillon, Eliza Carthy and his wife Kate Rusby. Since the release of his debut album Summer Hill in 2010, Damien has expanded the sonic palette that he works with beyond that of traditional instrumentation. One look at his band’s setup at the Junction 2 found a myriad of guitar pedals beyond that of many rock bands, let alone a genre that prides itself on pure, acoustic sounds.

Accompanied by two fellow guitarists in co-ordinated black shirts, Damien’s set drew heavily on his 2015 album Areas of High Traffic. Described as “bravely original” by The Guardian, its music was a departure for Damien by enhancing his reworkings of traditional Irish tunes with on electronic, atmospheric soundscapes. Opener “The Close of an Irish Day” epitomised this new approach, Damien’s effected vocals and Steve Iveson’s extended electric guitar technique enhancing the story of Irish travellers with a greater sense of atmosphere, intent and word-painting. This effect remained consistent throughout the set, resonating like a meeting between Enya and an ethereal Seth Lakeman. Other key standouts include “Erin’s Lovely Home”, a two-part song that switches from mournful balladry to assured folk-pop, and “The Banks of the Ban”, a beautiful song that sounded like an understated Corrs number filled with echo pedals.

Damien himself is softly-spoken, but hilariously dry as he walked us through his musical choices and influences. Who else would rather have listened to bearded Irish singers whilst schoolmates debated Blur vs. Oasis! The absolute highlight had to be the “Mystery Inch Set”, previously recorded with David Kosky, a joyfully bizarre number that would quite happily insert the Muppets and Rocky themes betwixt a jig and a reel. This was also the best proponent of Damien’s skill on the banjo and tenor guitar, as dextrous a player as he is an emotionally resonant singer.

Words by James Proctor

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