By Alan Richard
The John Byrne Band knows about heartache. You can tell in their moving Celtic folk-rock, with fiddles, steel guitars, and songs about fighting through oppression, addiction, and political troubles.
Most notably and poignantly on the Philadelphia band’s new record, Shiver in the Sky, Byrne shares the sorrow and anger of his brother’s experience coming out and fighting for equality back home in Dublin, Ireland.
“There are cautionary tales, songs about dealing with addiction, about immigration, about relationships of all kinds, about facing prejudice, about leaving things behind,” Byrne says in a publicity interview for the new album. “The Shiver in the Sky is the past, it’s the remnants of trauma. It never fully leaves us, but it fades with time.”
The song “Hold That Against Me,” has a bit of a jazz-rock feel, featuring a muscular horn section, more upbeat than many other of the tunes on this collection. The song mocks an older generation and close-hearted society in 1990s Ireland. “Am I not myself no more?” Byrne asks pleadingly on behalf of his brother.
Nathan Morrow’s cool animated video for the song depicts a lonely man, alone and curled up on his bed. But when he looks outside, he finds someone who might be like him. Together, the men look out at the great beyond, where an airplane flies free, the two of them aboard, headed for new colors, in the right direction.
“I went out with another man who said I was just like him
He was looking for nothing less than tolerance and sin
Why can’t he be more like you? You even own your home
Why can’t you be more like him? You grew up in the same room
Why you want to hold that against me?”
Thankfully, the Irish overwhelmingly passed a referendum amending the constitution to allow same-gender marriage in 2015.
Produced by long-time collaborator Andy Keenan in Philadelphia, the new album shows off Byrne’s splendid band. Their songs often feature mournful fiddle solos and blend modern rock, alt-country and other types of roots music, which led Sing Out to call Byrne “an Irish Alejandro Escovedo.”
With his full band and solo, Byrne plays about 150 shows a year, making him a true troubadour. Among several albums, he released a folk music collection with his father, John Sr., in 2018. The recording is now in Ireland’s National Folk Music Archives in Ireland.
The John Byrne Band plans an album release show in March for World Café Live in Philadelphia, along with a string of dates in the Mid-Atlantic—and in Ireland, some of Byrnes’ relatives are known to descend on village pubs and sing along.
Indeed, Byrne’s voice lends itself to the comparison to Escovedo, but usually less gruff. Rather, his style sometimes resembles Mark Knopfler at the rocker’s more recent, country-flavored moments.
Byrne introduces us as we meet some weathered characters on the track, “Hard Living Lovers”:
Tony was a cowboy, the South Jersey kind
I got him a hat once in North Carolina
Leavin’ the bottle, but he paid full price
All those hard livin’ lovers
are droppin’ like flies
Kate wouldn’t dance unless no one was looking
If you gave her your heart, she would push every button
She said, join me in the gutter or get out of my life
Those hard livin’ lovers, droppin’ like flies
The track “Just Like You” mixes a bit of rockabilly with some Dixieland-style horns, as Byrne depicts someone out of control: “You act like a bully in a china shop. Just like you, just like you.”
The ballad “Time Ain’t Changed” opens with banjo picking and acoustic guitar. Singing about Dublin, Philadelphia or some other place, Byrne addresses a city or maybe a lover:
“I still find your beauty
though you’ve been ridden hard
and put away soakin’ wet.
Time ain’t changed a thing in this town
The upside’s still up
The downside’s still way down
Time ain’t changed…
It never will.”
The album’s best song is “Easy to Get Stuck Here,” a folk ballad about venturing far from home, leaving Ireland, landing in America, finding freedom—and sometimes getting lost, especially right now. Byrne sings:
“Our roots keep us strong
But sometimes they keep us where we don’t belong…
It’s easy to get stuck here.
I don’t think… my grandfather ever left Dublin
or was ever abroad
Maybe he was just stuck there…
We traveled to Liverpool, London, New York
Only to get stuck here
and it’s easy to get stuck here
It’s hard to come home…
With the promise of snow
another year comes to an effortless close
I don’t want these thoughts to stop troubling me
I don’t want indifference, no
But it’s easy to get stuck here.”
With major chords and a singalong chorus, the track “Your Love Is All There Is” is more upbeat, offering a sense of relief. Byrne also looks for the silver lining on the ballad, “All In All.”
“All in all,” he sings, “I think we’re getting better, getting better. No, we can’t be too late.”
You can check out the album and get your very own copy at https://thejohnbyrneband.bandcamp.com/