Damh the Bard, Herne's Apprentice (Self-Produced, 2002)

Damh -- pronounced "darv" -- is a name that denotes the Stag, as in Great Horned One Who Stalks Hill and Dale. On this totally unique CD, Damh makes time with a goddess from the ancient Cymric (Welsh) pantheon, shifts his shape in the eternal pursuit of love, plays the Pipes of Pan, and wrestles with the maelstrom of the human heart. I am convinced that Damh latched onto the withers of Old Horny himself and went for the ride that warrants his rank of Bard!

In case you don't have your Shakespeare memorized, you will find the source of the CD's title in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Yes, I got this off the liner notes.)

There is an old tale goes
That Herne the Hunter
Sometimes keeper here in Windsor Forest
Doth all the winter time at still midnight
walk about an oak
with great ragg'd horns;
and there he blasts the tree
and takes the cattle
and makes the milch-kine yield blood
and shakes a chain
in a most hideous and dreadful manner.

As a youth from south England, Damh's embryonic interests in the occult matured into musical and mythological sensibilities. He became an official member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. It was he who walked away with the coveted prize of the premier Cymric cultural fest, the Eisteddfod, in 1997 -- a replica of an Iron Age torque and the title of Bard of Wessex. Shortly thereafter he composed and played with a band called Spiral Castle and has since shared stage with stars like Robin Williamson.

Herne's Apprentice is remarkable for many reasons. Damh is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. He not only produced the CD and wrote most of the songs, but he also sings and plays 6 and 12 string guitars, mandolin, bouzouki, whistle, djembe, and a tastefully moderated Midi. He mostly does rhythmic backing to his ballads with melodic overlays that do not interfere with the storytelling. The clean acoustic style derives from almost every Folk Rock musician of note since the Beatles, which infuses a modern energy into compositions stemming from the Cymric tradition. His voice is the perfect blend of Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) and Nick Drake in a rhapsodic delivery that haunts and lingers.

I could write pages about this CD but I'll keep things in as much focus as I can. Damh draws deeply from Cymric myth and legend as found in primary sources like the Mabinogion. This CD is not just a tribute to that material, it rebirths it and creates a wonderful gateway for those who should explore it.

Damh starts us out with "Song of Awen," a paean to the mystical forces of life all about us. His writing on this one harkens back to the more metaphysical side of the long-lost and much-missed Mike Pindar of the early Moody Blues.

First and foremost to mention is Damh's devotion to his muse, the goddess Blodeuwedd, whose name is the title of one of the most intriguing songs on the CD. In the cycle of the old Celtic divinities of southwestern Britain, Blodeuwedd was a bride fashioned by high magic from flowers for Llew Llaw Gyffes, the Cymric cognate of the Irish solar god-hero Lugh.

She falls in love with the hunter Gronw (pronounced "gronoo") and together they plot and kill Llew. Llew's father Gwydion finds out, restores him, and curses Blodeuwedd to eternity as an owl, a bird condemned never to see again the light of day. The story is one of the most compelling to have come into the English language. It's also one of the core myths underlying Robert Holdstock's tragic flora-born heroine, Guiwenneth of the Greenwood.

I've read versions of the myth in which Blodeuwedd is cast as the unfaithful wife who gets what she deserves. Not so in the case of Damh's rendition, who approaches her thusly: "Look into the water, tell me what do you see? / I see a woman of flowers crying out to be free." It's a poet's portrait of enslaved loveliness called through enchanted guile into a life she did not ask for. The thread of the story continues in "Cloak of Feathers," in which Blodeuwedd's curse is broken by Damh's love, "the love of a mortal man."

Damh works with modern material as well. He recorded P. Giovanni's "Gently Johnny," a song relegated to the director's cut version of The Wicker Man. In this song, Boy plays Mr. Roving Hands with Girl. In the middle of the song, there is a hiatus – a sort of rovus interruptus if you will – in which a spoken word piece extols the virtues of incarnating into the animal kingdom in non-human form. The song then returns us to rovus redux, which is already in progress. Strange, but rather effective.

This guy stands shoulders, head, and horns above those who've attempted to do what he does on labels like Narada and Global Pacific Records since the 1980s. I'm grateful to Damh for bringing me a whole new slew of songs for the campfire gang next summer.

Listening to Herne's Apprentice for about the hundredth time, I feel strange forces gathering. Hello, there's an antlered, bearded fellow outside pressing his ear to my window...that's odd, I'm up here on the third floor. I'd better wrap up this review because I've an eerie premonition I'm about to do a stint with the Night Hunt!


[Mike Stiles]

Damh conjures in cyberspace here