July 2023 album review: John Doyle & Mick McAuley

John Doyle & Mick McAuley • Their membership in Solas overlapped for roughly two years, but clearly that wasn’t enough of a collaborative opportunity for these two – among the most accomplished, high-profile Irish musicians of their generation – because since then they’ve played together in various other contexts, and now have their first recording as a duo to add to their portfolio. All the better for us, since this album hits so many marks, from sterling musicianship and high-quality singing to thoroughly enjoyable selections of material and well-crafted arrangements.

 Between them, the pair play upwards of a dozen instruments here, with Doyle on several iterations of guitar – 12-string, high five-string and bass as well as his iconic six-string – not to mention bouzouki, mandola, keyboards and even fiddle; McAuley musters button accordion and low whistle, and on one track chimes in with guitar and harmonica. Their guests include Danú members Oisín McAuley (fiddle) and Donnchadh Gough (bodhran), and percussionist James Mackintosh, a stalwart of Scottish bands Shooglenifty and Capercaillie.

Where to begin? Well, over the years, both gentlemen have shown themselves to be quite capable songwriters as well as interpreters of traditional music, and they’re in fine form on this album. McAuley’s “Life Upon the Ocean” has some earmarks of the sea shanty tradition, notably a boisterous sounding chorus (“For it’s heave and ho, to sea we’ll go/for a life upon the ocean”) yet is not an overly romanticized view of a sailor’s life – better than farming, perhaps, but you gotta work hard to play hard.

McAuley’s other composition, “It’s Sunrise,” and Doyle’s “One Fine Day” are more contemporary-minded yet also recall folk music’s historic role as an expression of populist/humanist views. That certainly applies to “It’s a Sunrise,” a call to stand up for human rights of ordinary people and to resist exploitation at the hands of governmental and corporate entities – but to do so with respect for democratic processes (“Wake up, and open your eyes/Put on your voting shoes, it’s sunrise”).

Doyle wrote “One Fine Day” after hearing an interview with one of many refugees fleeing war in Syria and North Africa. Besides putting a face and a story on what has become an all-too-familiar media tableau that invariably dehumanizes its subjects as helpless victims, the song makes a point of emphasizing refugees’ courage and determination: “One fine day we’ll rise again,” goes the chorus, echoing another such ode to optimism, Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter.”

The album also includes three traditional songs, which serve to further underscore the chemistry, and contrast, between Doyle and McAuley as vocalists: McAuley has perhaps more of a big-room voice, while Doyle’s is quieter, more intimate, though no less cogent – but they merge just fine, thank you. Doyle leads “Bay of Biscay,” a lover’s-ghost ballad that is far more tender than terrifying, and with a gorgeously poignant melody to match – particularly in the transition from the last line of each verse to the first of the next. He’s also out in front on the stately “General Owen Roe,” a salute to the Armagh-born commander of the Ulster forces in the 17th century, and McAuley joins in with splendid harmony throughout; the two also interpolate an instrumental, led by McAuley’s accordion, that matches the song’s heroic spirit.

You could make a pretty good case for “Abe Carmen” as the album highlight. A reworking of “The Robber’s Song” by the late, enigmatic, tragic UK singer Peter Bellamy, it sports a unique rhyming meter that perfectly suits the droll, unapologetic narration of the titular character – and McAuley and Doyle give it the appropriate amount of bravado:

My name it is Abe Carmen, you may find me alarming

If you think there may be harm in the trade of burglary

I live by taking chances like heroes of romances

And taking what I fancy from those wealthier than me


Then there are the four instrumental tracks, and it would be a disservice to render them as an afterthought. All the tunes except one are Doyle or McAuley originals, with the elegantly sultry "Imogene's Waltz" by Doyle kicking off the album's opening track, followed by two ripping McAuley reels, "Petie Mack's/The Black and Amber" – abetted in no small way by the presence of Oisín McAuley and Goughon and providing just a sample of the high-level musicianship throughout the CD. 

A seven-minutes-plus medley is an impressive showcase for both McAuley’s tune writing and accordion playing, as well as the duo’s flair for arrangement. It’s bookended by his reels "The Bird Feeder" and "Annie G's,” and in between is "The Banks," a tune of some questionable origin (its backstory includes Scottish fiddler J. Scott Skinner and a possibly fictional Italian violinist named Parazotti). Normally played as a hornpipe, Doyle and McAuley repurpose “Banks” as a reel, enhancing its classical-like flamboyance, and then they up the ante with “Annie G’s,” and its rapid, jagged bursts of syncopation in the B part, for which the duo heighten both anticipation and exhilaration. 

Doyle gets a turn in the spotlight with his leisurely, serene “Alone Together,” on which he takes the melody – McAuley’s soothing low whistle joins the second time through – and then kicks into that legendary flatpicking on an original reel, “The Roustabout,” before McAuley reappears with a pair of his creations, “The Murmuration” and “Sharpen the Knife” (on which he returns to accordion). 

While Doyle and McAuley’s album certainly stands on its own merits, as it should, it’s also a reminder of their ties to Solas and its legacy as an innovative force in Irish music: not so much pushing the so-called boundaries of tradition as discerning quite astutely where and how modern ideas and elements could reside within the trad framework  – and making clear that you didn’t need loud electric guitars and drum sets to play with the intensity of a rock band. 

As much as they helped make that happen with Solas, Doyle and McAuley have each blazed their own tremendously productive paths, and listening to the fruits of their creativity is a most rewarding experience. [johndoylemickmcauley.bandcamp.com]