In the 1990s they were two Irish exiles arriving in New York City like so many before them, with youthful curiosity and adventure stoking their musical minds still very much in formation.
Fate and serendipity would bring them together in a new band called Solas (Light) along with other wunderkind in the Irish traditional music scene ready to take the music into the next millennium.
As wildly exciting and successful as Solas was in its opening five years of existence, it could not contain the brilliant pair who felt compelled to seek different roads for themselves at the turn of this century experiencing personal growth as artists and individuals.
Maturity and a willingness to expose themselves to greater challenges as professional musical artists have marked the work of singer Karan Casey from Waterford and singer/guitarist John Doyle from Dublin.
The journey may have been rough and rocky at times, but there is no question that it has made them compelling artists in the forefront of the Irish music scene today.
Last week both were featured performers in the cavalcade of Celtic music’s brightest stars at the annual Celtic Connections gathering in Glasgow, the three week showcase that has become a true crossroads of music in the British Isles and beyond.
In particular Casey and Doyle performed at the prestigious Royal Concert Hall, the premier venue for the acts invited to Glasgow to display their wares. With the pending release of their new joint CD Exiles Return in February, anticipation was building on what the creative tandem might bring forth this time around.
Since leaving Solas, Casey has been busy producing five respected and varied CDs while burnishing her reputation as a seasoned interpreter of songs from the traditional canon, many of which were learned directly from the muse of the late Frank Harte, the Dublin song collector and singer.
Casey’s expansive mind and soul also reached back for music from the American jazz and blues masters to round out her repertoire. She also garnered two awards as Ireland’s best female vocalist from Irish Music Magazine readers, and even a Grammy for work with Paul Winter.
From the home in Cork she shares with husband Niall Vallelly, she has maintained a sharp eye for contemporary songs and songwriters.
Similarly, John Doyle has maintained a dizzying and highly productive path of creativity as well over the past decade, with collaborations from Dublin to Scotland and New York to Nashville and Asheville that justify his self-proclaimed label of being a “Mid-Atlantean.”
Don’t confuse that with being neither here nor there, because Doyle’s collaborative work has a well-defined purpose and success ratio as his work with Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Susan McKeown, Solas, Alison Brown and many others attest since arriving on these shores.
His work with Liz Carroll in recent years has been extraordinary, and their latest CD Double Play is up for a Grammy Award this coming weekend.
As the current musical director for the Joan Baez band which includes long-time musical peer and genius Dirk Powell, Doyle has risen to the ranks of accompanists who are in great demand, which allows him to pursue projects close to his heart when the time allows.
Such a project is Exiles Return produced by Powell for Compass Records last year after Doyle and Casey hunkered down in Nashville and recorded a number of tracks that led to this exceptional 12-track release.
It was something the two talked about doing for years but needed to find the time to accomplish it in a manner that made the effort worth doing. And so they have in one of the more refreshing CD of songs to come across my inbox in a long time.
Given the complexity of their lives as performing professionals and geography (Casey lives in Cork and Doyle in Asheville, North Carolina), the project needed to be simple and uncomplicated.
In this case, simplicity is bliss and the rollback from arrangements that got in the way of the colorful storytelling that their selections warranted was a priority for Casey, Doyle and Powell. Only flute player Michael McGoldrick was added to the mix to add some extra flair.
I have long marveled at the ability of Casey and Doyle independently to search out songs, old, new and in-between, without worrying about classifying them or labeling them into some chronological relevancy that interfered with simply exposing a well-written song or dramatic tale that had universal appeal.
But one of the reasons they can carry that off is that they are equally hard to define because they are folk musicians of the highest order who can deliver the goods in the contemporary world they flourish in. Both are astute listeners who have been exposed widely to the best musicians or tradition bearers one could imagine, and that has infused their work on this CD.
And that is what they have done here in Exiles Return, with its dominant themes revolving around songs of love and loss, replete with the familiar topics of war, treacherous lovers, emigration and unemployment.
It is a collection of gems and rarely-heard material that Casey and Doyle have resurrected with aplomb and feeling, and I feel certain that many -- including the fetching title track -- will make their way into trad and song sessions around the world in the next few years as its impact spreads.
Followers of their past ventures will know the influence of Frank Harte and Mick Moloney, but An Ring’s Aine O’Ceallaigh comes up big in this CD with two songs Karan sings. “Out of My Window” is a favorable variant of “She Moves Through the Fair,” as is “False Lover John.”
Also they add their magical touch to a Childe ballad, “False Lover,” and a more contemporary tale of woe in the dying Belfast shipbuilding trade entitled “Shipyard Slips” that fall under the common thread of the CD.
The album concludes with an achingly beautiful epic ballad written by Thomas Davis back in the middle of the 19th century called “The Flower of Finae,” describing a love lost to battle that Casey learned from the singing of a Dublin peer Niamh Parsons.
Much to enjoy in this recording that shows Casey and Doyle at peak performance levels and to mark its presence in America, the tandem is embarking on a brief tour of the Northeast in February highlighted below. Treat yourself to a copy of the new CD and even better try to catch a live performance if you can.
The brief Casey-Doyle tour comprises eight gigs starting in Boston on February 7 at Club Passim (617-492-7679), the 8th at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan (212-239-6200 or www.joespub.org), and 9th in Philadelphia at World Café Live (215-222-1400). For more information on the other shows, or on Casey, visit www.karancasey.com. For John Doyle surf to www.johndoylemusic.com.
You can order Exiles Return direct from Compass Records at 615-320-7672 or at www.compassrecords.com.