Solas founder slows down for his own story songs
Label: Compass Records
Time: 11 tracks / 60 minutes
Those who have taken up our recommendation for the Solas Reunion DVD will have seen what a key founder-member John Doyle has been, with his driving rhythms that add so much to their intense Celtic mix.
Since he left, the left-handed guitarist has been on the road with Joan Baez; earned a Best Traditional World Music Album Grammy for his collaboration with fiddler Liz Carroll on Double Play; and has worked with Heidi Talbot and former bandmate Karan Casey.
Solo albums are a chance to make a break with the band format and this is not a disc to buy for Doyle’s highly rhythmic collaborative style, although he has brought in a few old friends. These are songs in a more reflective vein; self-composed, stripped back and much slower than the typical Solas fare.
With just percussion or bass, rather than drums, on most tracks, this is a gentle collection, nuanced by fiddle (Stuart Duncan), accordion (old bandmate John Williams), banjo (Alison Brown), uilleann pipes and flute (Michael McGoldrick).
This set comprises many stories, particularly historical ones with roots in his Irish/American identity. “Clear the Way” covers the disillusioned men of the Irish Brigade, fighting the American Civil War “Not for honour, nor for country, we kill for three square meals a day;” while “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” tells of the emigrants from Ireland’s potato famine, over thirty thousand of whom died from the passage. “Bound for Botany Bay” is his Irish-based version of a traditional song about a criminal.
Otherwise, most of these pieces concern family. “Little Sparrow,” which has been a regular live piece for a while, is about his daughter; “The Arabic” is the true story of his great-grandfather, who was on the ship of the same name that was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The plaintive instrumental “Tribute to Donal Ward / The Currachman” honours his uncle, to whom the whole album is dedicated.
The other welcome instrumental set, “Killoran’s Church / Swedishish” is a beautiful pastoral piece. He duets in unison with fiddle until hitting Solas mode in the second half, laying down his trademark brisk guitar rhythms for accordion, fiddle and an unaccredited bass to work with.
There are several songs you might remember later, but these are generally hook-free stories that you would enjoy listening to with a pint in hand at a folk club, rather than hankering to put on at home. Musicians will enjoy it all them more for its expert performances. Where he is unaccompanied, such as on “Wheel of Fortune,” the gorgeous tone of his eight-string guitar/bouzouki or McConnell guitar shines through.
Doyle has written or co-written all but the traditional track here, and his lyrics reveal values. “Clear the Way” speaks of the soldiers regret at what he was doing as a mercenary (“I did the devil’s work that day”), while he seems to feel visceral pain at the invidious position the Irish faced before the start of the First World War. Fighting for the enemy British, in the hope of gaining home rule for Ireland in return, meant being seen by their countrymen as traitors. The tale of a jilted lover emigrating to the Yukon to prospect for gold carries a sense of lost values, while the story of a man engulfed by alcoholism (“Bitter Brew”) carries its own message.
Unusually, he may save the best for last. The wistful “Selkie” is based on a dream, but it has some particularly lovely chord changes, enhanced by the most subtle lap steel and bass.
Those who enjoy Martin Taylor’s folk stories may also enjoy these, enhanced as they are by superb playing and a haunting, dreamy end.