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John Doyle: The Path of Stones
by George Graham
(Compass Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/6/2020)
Celtic music has had a fairly sustained revival for a few decades now. The Chieftains began to spread traditional Celtic music to wider audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, with their high quality musicianship, and their performances extended the popularity of the music well beyond its more traditional adherents. Then about 20 years ago, a new generation of Celtic artists appeared, analogous to the way the 1980s New Acoustic scene was its pushing the envelope in bluegrass music. The new Celtic movement was spearheaded by Solas, a young Irish American group led by Seamus Egan. The original members of Solas have all become significant artists in their own right, and one of them, guitarist John Doyle has made some especially notable music over the years, often in collaboration with others, such as serving as musical director for Joan Baez. His two previous solo albums were gems, as was his duo album with another Solas alumna, Karan Casey. However, though he has been keeping busy with projects with fiddler Liz Carroll, and as a member of a trio with John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick, it has been over nine years since Doyle has released an album under his own name. Now he is out with The Path of Stones, and it was worth the wait.
For the new album, Doyle collaborated with a number of guests, including John McCusker, vocalist Cathy Jordan from the group Dervish, fiddler Duncan Wickel, and harmonica player Rick Epping. But it also features a fair amount of overdubbing with Doyle playing multiple parts and instruments. Notable about this album, is that unlike his previous records which included a majority of traditional material, all the tracks on The Path of Stones are original compositions, though one is based on traditional lyrics. The album is about evenly divided between instrumental pieces, with outstanding playing, and songs featuring Doyle’s warm, inviting tenor with his notable brogue. The original lyrics sound quite traditional, with topics including of the Irish migration to America, and some love songs. The instrumental pieces tend to be in sets, as often the case with Celtic music, with two or three individual compositions arranged to segue from one to the next.
Opening is the piece with Doyle’s original music to traditional lyrics, The Rambler from Clare whose words came from the 1788 Irish rebellion. It’s nicely done with the attractive tune contrasting to the lyrics about armed conflict and its consequences. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is called Elevenses for its complicated 11-beat rhythmic figure. Doyle plays guitar and mandolin, eventually joined by Michael McGoldrick on flute. It’s the New Celtic music at its best. <<>>
Doyle, the vocalist is highlighted on the original song Lady Wynde. Cathy Jordan joins with backing vocals with this plaintive-sounding track. <<>>
On Doyle’s previous solo albums, he has included some music more in the English folk style in the tradition of Bert Jansch more than Celtic. On this album, the title track Path of Stones hints at English folk, in this song of lament from a lost love. <<>>
A particularly satisfying instrumental piece is a medley of reels, The Coolaney Reel, The Winding Stair, and Rossagh Rambles. The track is nicely arranged so the energy level and instrumentation builds as the track moves from one of the parts to the next. <<>>
A piece called Sing Merrily to Me is anything but merry in its sound. It’s a sad song in which Rick Epping’s harmonica is surprisingly prominent in the arrangement. <<>>
A very pretty original love song with a traditional sound is Her Long Hair Flowing Down, which again highlights Doyle’s skill as a vocalist. <<>>
A definite highlight of the album is another of Doyle’s original songs that sounds thoroughly traditional, Teelin Harbour, an upbeat story song, in which Doyle plays most of the instruments himself, including two guitars, bouzouki, harmonium and fiddle. With some help from McCusker on the other fiddle Cathy Jordan on bodhran. <<>>
John Doyle has been one of the creative lights of Celtic music for more than 20 years. And while he has remained active, often in a supporting role, he has not been particularly prolific in terms to releasing his own music. His new album The Path of Stones, his first under his own name in nearly a decade, is a welcome remedy to that. An outstanding guitarist, and as the album shows, a multi-instrumentalist, as well as an appealing vocalist who brings a sense of the traditions and authenticity to his performances, Doyle nicely highlights those on The Path of Stones. And the album also marks his deepest venture into songwriting, with almost all the material being original, creating new songs that sound thoroughly traditional. His is joined by some sympathetic collaborators who also maintain the level of taste that Doyle is known for.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” The acoustic instrumentation has good clarity and warmth, as does Doyle’s vocal. Studio effects are kept at a minimum.
The Celtic music scene remains active, with some artists and bands going more electric. But artists like John Doyle are carrying on the traditions, and at the highest musical level.
(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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