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Jet Propelled— Celtic Guitar Whiz John Doyle Flies Solo

     Twenty-odd years ago the guitar world experienced an outbreak of Irish Jig and Reel Fever. Hot pickers tuned their guitars to DADGAD and mobbed pub sessions everywhere, hitting the languid off-beats and suspended chords they’d copped off Micheál Ó Domnaill. Today, Irish music is more popular than ever. But pickers are more likely now to be driving tunes with a heightened urgency, abandoning DADGAD for a modal Drop-D, and borrowing rhythms from Latin America, Africa, and beyond.

     This brave new world of Celtic guitar and its snowballing popularity can be credited in no small part to the playing of a young, left-handed, Dublin-born guitarist with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. At the age of 30, John Doyle has already logged eleven years of touring with some of the finest musicians on the Celtic scene, notably with the groundbreaking quintet Solas. With hundreds of concerts and festivals, many recordings, soundtrack work, and a teaching video already under his belt, John has become one of the most-imitated Celtic guitarists around. Today he’s traded New York’s grit for the more relaxed pace of Asheville, North Carolina and is launching his solo career. John’s debut CD on Shanachie Records. "Evening Comes Early," was released in June.

     I was initially impressed by John’s sheer energy as an accompanist when he first toured with Solas. But then I began to notice how many different ways he can play a tune, how many different chord voicings he can access, and how the underlying rhythms melt and mutate, keeping things interesting and always propelling forward. "Evening Comes Early" showcases another side of John, that of a master finger-picker and confident ballad singer. I spoke with him in Asheville about where he’s been and where he’s going.

When you first arrived in the States, was what you were doing different from what the New York Celtic fret players were doing?

     DOYLE: Very different, for some reason. I think the high-energy, driving guitar sound that I was doing was not a part of American culture, or New York culture, at the time. It caught on quickly, though.

Is this the direction American players are taking Celtic guitar now?

     DOYLE: Oh, I think it goes in several directions. I think they get a lot out of that percussive style. It’s exciting for young players, like it was pretty much all the rage in Ireland. But there’s other directions to go in, as well, to the lighter side of things.

What brought you to New York?

     DOYLE: I was playing in Dublin with Susan McKeown and Chanting House in 1990, and she got some arts council funding to go to New York and study. She went over and I followed four or five months later. I figured I’d stay for a few months and then leave. It ended up being eleven years.

Did you know anybody besides Susan when you got to New York?

     DOYLE: No, the first person I met was Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies. She got us our first gig in New York. From Joanie I met Eileen Ivers, and from Eileen I met Seamus Egan, and from Seamus I met everybody else. Susan, Eileen, Joanie and I used to play in a place called The Lion’s Den on Bleeker Street. Good fun. Seamus would pop his head in now and then and play. From there, we all got together and reformed the new Chanting House band.

This is your first solo project. How is it different from your past work as part of an ensemble?

     DOYLE: It’s the stuff that I’ve been intimately involved with for as long as I’ve done music—the songs and tunes as well. It’s the guitarist-vocalist approach, like those great early recordings by Martin Carthy and Nic Jones. And I learned a lot of stuff from my father. He’s actually on the CD. He’d be one of my main influences. I grew up listening to traditional music from around Dublin and Sligo and went outwards from there—all the Irish folk, English and Scottish stuff.

Did you focus on the Irish music first and then get turned on to Carthy and Jones, or were you absorbing it all at the same time?

     DOYLE: I think it was all at the same time. It was early on when I heard Dick Gaughan’s "A Handful of Earth." I must have been about twelve. I remember being dumbfounded, saying, "How the hell is he doing this?" I’d listen to that constantly. Then my brother brought home a Martin Carthy album and I thought, "This is how I want to play." Before then I was listening to Paul Brady and Arty McGlynn. Between all those styles, for singing and playing, they were profound influences.

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