John Doyle may be an in-demand session player, integral member of the Transatlantic Sessions team and virtuoso guitar-playing singer-songwriter, but this evening at the Kitchen Garden Café he proved to be a very entertaining solo performer in his own right. Matching impish wit with the aforementioned skills was a winning formula for John who failed to not move any of this considerably healthy Birmingham audience turnout. The alternative attraction of Richard Thompson at the city’s Symphony Hall and a vibrant street festival right outside the venue’s door seemed to not impact upon the evening, give or take a slightly delayed start to the proceedings. This sensible policy to wait for a significant alleviation in the adjacent outdoor activity only had a marginal effect on the evening which still panned out to John charming the attendees for nearly two hours.
Striking a balance between traditional and contemporary is a usual safe haven for folk artists alongside being able to deliver an autobiographical flow of original material. John Doyle comfortably falls into this category and threads many an entertaining yarn based on events from his beloved Ireland. Not surprisingly travel and emigration from the Emerald Isle features prominently in his writing with a pair of tracks from his most recent album in ‘The Arabic’ and ‘Clear the Way’ rich in this subject.
The album in question, SHADOW AND LIGHT, came out in 2011 suggesting John is far from an exhaustive music maker, although checking out his extensive work with other artists is far more indicative of his hectic work schedule. Recently John has teamed up with Kate Rusby on her latest record, previously worked with Heidi Talbot and his association with Scottish folk icons Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker is legendary. The evidence witnessed this evening via John’s skills on his guitar-bouzouki hybrid, known effectively as a guizouki, gave full credence to these collaborations and you only have to go back a decade to uncover a Grammy winning project with Tim O’Brien.
Returning to proceedings this evening revealed yet another gig which blossomed and bloomed more intensely with each song. Apart from ‘The Arabic’, which is a true tale of a family member literally coming back to life after a deadly boat attack, the other highlight of the first set was the ever perpetual folk singalong ,with ‘Liberty’s Sweet Shore’ providing the memorable chorus on this occasion. This song married the theme of the evening with its subject content based on the endemic hardship of nineteenth century Irish emigrants making their way to Canada. A similar topic was the inspiration of the evening’s final song in ‘Clear the Way’ which tells the tale of the song’s inhabitants entering different parts of America from the old world and thus becoming enemies on the battlefield of a nation embroiled in civil war.
In fact the measurably increased in length second set was packed full of smart songs ranging from the singalong sea shanty ‘Fall Down Billy O’Shea’ to the intrinsically captivating song ‘Path of Stones’. The latter is the result of a commissioned project to produce a piece of song writing inspired by the great Irish poet W.B.Yeats and this yet to be recorded track ticked many boxes on first listen. Traditional songs poured out in the guise of ‘False Lady’ and a re-working into ‘Valentine O’Hara’, while many in the audience were given a educative lesson of the origin and meaning of the word selkie via a song of the same name. The take on the Dick Gaughan made famous song ‘Pound a Week Rise’ was another entertaining high spot of the show, with John also demonstrating his adeptness at delivering a love song in ‘I Never Let You Know’.
Richard Thompson may have pulled in more punters for his show, but those who chose this appealing intimate offering from John Doyle had few complaints. The whole package was in place plus much more and when John hopefully returns to the city next year with the Transatlantic Sessions annual tour reunion, thoughts will go back to when he delivered a thoroughly entertaining, enlightening and engaging show at the Kitchen Garden Café on a Sunday night in September.