FolkWorld Issue 43 11/2010; Live Report by Walkin' T:-)M

Meet Again in Distant Lands
Karan Casey & John Doyle @ Tønder Festival, Visemøllen, 27 August 2010

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Tønder 2010
Both singer Karan Casey and guitarist John Doyle left Irish-American trad band Solas to pursue successful solo careers. But nothing is as good as the real thing; 2010 sees them getting together back again and even returning to the Tønder Festival after many years of absence.

In the 1990's there were two Irish exiles arriving in New York City to join the emerging band Solas (FW#32): vocalist Karan Casey from Waterford and guitar player John Doyle from Dublin. Solas soon became top-notch, known for fiery and powerful instrumental music and distinct versions of traditional Irish ballads. Since leaving the band for good, Karan recorded a couple of albums to different success, John became a sought-after accompanist. Their duet album "Exiles Return" saw them joining up together for the very first time, though there was talk about it for a couple of years. But no easy undertaking -- John lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and Karan is back in Ireland, Cork precisely.

Karan Casey & John Doyle @ FolkWorld: #42

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Karan and John's "Exiles Return" and their Visemøllen concert at the Tønder Festival celebrate the emigrant, the exiled and the returned immigrant. Irishman and Irishwomen did so over the centuries to escape persecution and starvation or for whatever reason.

All you young men I pray draw near now
And give ear to the words I am going to say
I'm going to tell you the people of Ireland
Are emigrating to America

Hurrah for the galant sons of Ireland
This poor country they can't stand
They put their foot on board of a ship
And they are sailing off to the Yankee land

The traditional "Sailing Off to the Yankee Land, sourced from the late Dublin singer and song collector Frank Harte (#31), tells of emigration in 19th century famine times (#30). The melancholic song is set to a lively tune. On the CD Dirk Powell is heard on the old-time banjo. However, the song stands on its own. Frank Harte proved this accompanied only by Donal Lunny then; just so John Doyle on the guitar or the mandola, respectively, is an orchestra of his own.

Karan Casey @ FolkWorld:
FW#30, #30, #32, #34, #42

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John is living in America now for half of his life. The CD's title track, "Exiles Return," was written by himself. As rarely as he does songwriting, there is always something valuable at the end. The story of a voyage on "The Jeanie Johnston" is gripping your attention. It also has a memorable chorus:

And though we bid farewell in sorrow
We may meet again in distant lands
And drink a health in joy for parting
For the Exile will return again

The Jeanie Johnston was a three masted barque that made 16 voyages between 1848 and 1855 bringing emigrants from Ireland to North America.

Emigration is such an important topic in Irish history and thus in Irish balladry as well. However, what on first sight appears to be a kind of concept album (and might indeed be supposed so at first) became something different altogether, embracing the whole spectrum of the traditional Irish repertory.

Oh, grief and woe that I must go and fight for England's king
I do not know his friends or foe and war's a cruel thing
No more I'll walk the golden hills with Nancy by my side
Or stroll along the sun-bright rills or view my land with pride
We sail away at dawn of day, our sails are ready set
When Old Ireland's shore I see no more, I will sigh with deep regret
If I should fall by a cannonball or sink beneath the sea
Good people all, a tear let fall and mourn for mine and me

John Doyle @ FolkWorld:
FW#32, #32, #39, #39, #42

Another fine song is this anti-war ballad, "The Nightingale," the bird in question was the name of a British Man of War used for pressganged men. (Well, kind of emigration too.) The orginal version of the ballad can be found in the famed Sam Henry collection (#37). Frank Harte recorded it on his "My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte" album, examining the (musical) relationship between the French emperor and the Irish.

The set list tonight consists not only of songs from the "Exiles Return" album. Karan and John also deliver English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson's (#42) revolutionary "World Turned Upside Down." Since Scottish singer Dick Gaughan (#36) did it two decades ago, almost half of the world took it up (e.g. #30). So is Ewan MacColl's (#35) "Ballad of Accounting." Both songs had been recorded for Karan's first solo album in 1997, "Songlines."

Karan and John deliver sparse versions of these traditional and contemporary ballads. It is a stripped-down approach, simple and undisguised. It also calls attention to the narrative. Though the song's topics are mostly not much fun, it is no depressing but rather uplifting concert. When not immersing in a song, Karan has a pleasant smile and is full of energy. Her vocals are both poignant and affectionate.

John is not only doing the harmonies, he even takes up lead on one or the other song. Tonight he also sings one that is not on the album, which is about his grandfather who emigrated in 1915 and his ship got torpedoed. His guitar playing is subtle and always interesting. A medley of three reels on solo guitar displays an exiting melody player as well.

The encore is the popular "Newry Highwayman" and this is a voyage back in time. Solas did it on his first album way back in 1996. (By the way, the English know this song as "Newlyn Highwayman" and Oysterband's John Jones, -> #41, does a version of it the other night when walking off the stage and walking through the crowd to the CD stalls.) Afterwards, Irish accordion player Seamus Begley and English guitar player Tim Edey enter the Visemøllen stage for another hour of Irish songs and tunes. When they play their last encore, Karan and John join in and stumble altogether through the traditional Gaelic song "Aililiu Na Gamhna," which means something like "Hooray, the Calves" and is about a pretty young girl delighted in tending her cows. The version on Solas' second album "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers" (1997) is probably more refined, but certainly not as charming.

Photo Credits: (1) Tønder Logo (by Tønder Festival); (2)-(4) Karan Casey & John Doyle (by Walkin' Tom).

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