Celtic music fans know John Doyle best as the lead guitarist of the legendary folk group Solas. He was the least well-known member of the band, taking a backseat to multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, searing fiddler Winifred Horan, concertina expert John Williams, and lead singer Karan Casey. Doyle’s rhythmic playing and harmony vocals provided a solid foundation from which the others could take the spotlight and shine. Although Doyle takes center stage on his second solo album, he keeps the arrangements simple and his playing uncomplicated. The disc does not contain any flashy string arpeggios or soaring vocals, just a dozen traditional style ballads, jigs, and reels faultlessly executed.
Doyle rarely strains his voice to sing his tales of murderous sea captains, unwed mothers, and dangerous outlaws. He carefully articulates each syllable, as he’s more interested in telling the stories than in embellishing the tales. This works better on the songs that have beginnings, middle, and ends rather than the more atmospheric yarns. Doyle’s version of “Jack Dolan”, which frequently goes by the name “The Wild Colonial Boy”, provides a positive example of this. The title character robs the rich and powerful of the Australian settlements. When the authorities surround Dolan, he fights to the death rather than surrender and go to prison. Doyle tells the tale bit by bit, so that by the time the climactic final scene occurs, the listener has understood the full extent of the tragedy. Dolan is too fierce to live free, too free to live penned up. Doyle’s straightforward vocal rendition allies him with the forces of civilization, but his fast-paced stringed accompaniment reveals his sympathy with the untamed man. Doyle’s ably backed by English bassist Danny Thompson (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson) and percussionist Kenny Malone (John Mellencamp, Alison Krause), who keep the rhythm ever moving. Bluegrass stalwart Stuart Duncan’s fiddle playing provides an audio allegory of Dolan’s untrammeled spirit.
The aforementioned three musicians are just some of the all-star talents that assist Dolan. The reclusive singer Linda Thompson joins him on the traditional Irish tune “The Month of January”, while English songbird Kate Rusby joins him on his original composition, “Bitter the Parting”. Banjo maven Alison Brown assists on the sea shanty “Captain Glenn”, while the great Irish American fiddle player Liz Carroll joins him on a couple of songs. Still, this is Doyle’s CD. His accompanists, even on the instrumentals, never overwhelm him.
Doyle performs one tune himself, aptly, a song of unrequited love called “The Cocks Are Crowing”. The mysterious lyrics don’t really say what the problem is. The girl puts him off, but seems to have feelings for the boy who declares his affections. Her parents’ objections seem to do with her not being a fitting bride, but the narrator dismisses their qualms and reiterates his deep feelings. The last stanza obfuscates rather than clarifies the problem. Doyle admits in the liner notes that the final four lines mystified him when he heard it first on a field recording of Eddie Butcher, and later on a disc by a group called the Voice Squad. Doyle said he understands the final verse better now after the legendary folklorist Mick Moloney explained it to him, but unfortunately Doyle doesn’t offer the details here. What is one to make of:
If the Killey Boyne, it were my ink horn /
And the green fields, they were mine, and white /
If my pen were made of the tempered steel, sure /
My true love’s praises I could never write.
Doyle sings the lyrics clearly over a gentle fingered guitar accompaniment and sounds neither happy nor sad. He continues playing the lilting melody for almost another minute after the words end, never faltering or fading, before stopping at the measure’s closure. Presumably, the narrator heads off alone but one doesn’t understand why. This is one of the times in which plainly articulating the lyrics doesn’t seem to pay off.
Of course, this is not a problem on the songs without words. Doyle plays four sets of mostly traditional instrumental tunes with different players. The musicians perform the jigs and reels with gusto and precision. Doyle’s self-penned “Expect the Unexpected” reveals his jazzy side. While clearly rooted in Irish conventions, Doyle plays Django Reinhardt style licks while Liz Carroll’s fiddle swoops in, out and over the lines. The two swing. They do not need language to induce listeners to smile and get happy.