“Whirl and Twirl” is Vineyard musician Joe Keenan’s fourth and latest album — an 11-cut collection from a master writer and performer.
It is a winner.
I knew I was in for quite a ride when I felt goosebumps part way into the first song. Mr. Keenan plays a superb guitar and his voice is smooth as honey.
If you’ve seen Joe on the street or in his older Volvo station wagon up Island, he is likely to be covered in dust, dirt, and sweat from whatever it is that he happens to be doing at that time to earn a living. He may be returning from shingling a roof or from maneuvering in a crawl space to make a repair. He may have just returned from cooking on a tall ship.
Mr. Keenan fell into working on the Shenandoah, one of two tall ships owned by the Douglas family of Black Dog fame. “That’s what really kicked me into the Island,” he said. His main breaks from the Island have been to work the galley on tall ships. He said that the hardest job he has ever had was as chief cook for 50 people on the Pincton Castle, a 180-foot three-masted barque on a 13-month around-the-world voyage in 2006. His main cooking tool was the ship’s 1893 coal fired stove.
Mr. Keenan always travels with his guitar. When in port he became the Pincton Castle’s on-shore delegate and would sing for the people who would come to greet the picturesque boat at its many stops around the globe.
His roots are solid folk. His music exhibits those roots whether they be Celtic, Irish ballads or dance tunes, Hawaiian slack key, American folk, or sea shanties. His melodies are often more reflective of the style of the song while his lyrics move from the traditional to the contemporary.
He plays guitar with a sensitive touch that reflects his virtuosity. His favorite guitar is a one made by Islander Gregg Harcourt that he used on this album. He said that he was happy with the way this CD caught the deep rich sounds of Gregg’s guitar. He said that most of the songs on this album were one-take recordings. The CD has the sound and feel of a finely tuned live concert as a result.
Mr. Keenan sings and writes most of what he plays. All but two of the songs on this album are entirely his. One, the moving, plaintive “Aye Fond Kiss” uses words borrowed from Robert Burns. The other, “Spencer the Rover” is a song written by contemporary Scottish folk legend John Martyn.
“Whirl and Twirl” highlights
Every song on this album is worthy of being highlighted, but I will just mention a few more in addition to the two above.
The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe’s “true and dear friend,” a Hawaiian named Junior. The first song, “Jr.’s Song,” is a finger-picked, acoustic steel string guitar instrumental piece with hints of Hawaiian slack key guitar. It is a rhythmically complex play on a repeating melody that had me thinking of waterfalls and sunny days.
“The song took me more than a year to perfect, to the place where I wanted it to be,” Mr. Keenan said. “It wasn’t until I was on the boat, the Pincton Castle, where I was moving with the boat and the sounds of the sea, that it came together.”
The second song on the album, the title song, “Whirl and Twirl,” has a light-as-day hypnotic melody. It is a happy, rhythmic, toe tapping song about living, “rise up in the morning with the sun and say, hey, go to work and it seems like play.” The pieces of this song fit together so well and it is so endearing that like a round it circles inside of you. It was inspired by change in a relationship, he said. Somewhat ironically, Mr. Keenan calls it a breakup song.
“My Woman” is an a cappella love song with an Irish feel.
“Heave Me Johnny,” a sea shanty style song is another toe-tapper. Mr. Keenan wrote it on East Chop while watching his old ship sail from the Vineyard.
“Begging for Water,” is an instrumental reminiscent of Leo Kottke’s early slide guitar work.
Joe, 51, is old style Vineyard. He has a Chilmark winter rental. He usually camps out in the summer. He came here in 1987 to play a benefit concert with fellow musician John Cruz, whose friend had been in a car accident. He has been here since.
In spite of his work-a-day appearance, Joe is one of the most polished, seasoned performers on the Island. He cleans up real well for the stage yet he seldom performs for large audiences.
“I kind of see myself as kind of a Celtic seanachie or the story teller who has a purpose in the community,” Joe said in a telephone conversation, “and so I end up playing for people’s weddings and singing at funerals and that pleases me as much, in a way, as playing shows.”
It is hard sometimes to fathom the breath of musical talent on this Island. I think that Joe is one of the best examples we have.
Joe Keenan’s “Whirl and Twirl” can be purchased at aboveground records, Alley’s General Store, Conroy Apothecary, Menemsha Texaco or downloaded online from joekeenan.bandcamp.com, where his earlier albums are also available for purchase.