Listen to the title track of Dance with the Fireflies, the new CD by singer-guitarist Brian Henke, and it’s like listening to the fae, the faery folk.
True, the song sounds like faery music, with Henke’s delicate guitar tapestry and earthy baritone caressed by Ginger Ackley’s Celtic flute, which, in that peculiar way of Irish folk music, seems at once touched by sadness and gaiety.
Henke’s CD cover even reproduces an early 1900s artwork by faery-obsessed, Australian illustrator Ida Rentoul Outhwaite – but, curiously, it’s one of the artist’s non-fae creations.
Yet the fae are at play in another way on the title track of Dance with the Fireflies.
“Dance in the fae light, bells made of fire,” Henke sings early in the song. Yet later he sings “Beltane fire,” using the old Irish pronunciation of the spring-summer fire festival: “Byel-tin-yuh fire.”
Or does he? Just like the fae, that line in this beautiful, gentle paean to a summer’s evening shape-shifts with each listening. When, upon my request, Henke emailed me the lyrics and revealed that the line is “bells made of fire” throughout the song, I believed that he believed that. But I’m not convinced that the fae aren’t playing a trick on him and anyone who hears the song and are changing the lyric – and Henke’s enunciation — at their whim.
Dance with the Fireflies, the album, is fae-magickal throughout its 12 tracks, and it’s easy to discern Henke’s most prominent spell-casting tool: his stunning virtuosity on acoustic guitar, harp guitar, and his Gibson Les Paul.
Henke is an awe-inspiring picker whose genre is known as “fingerstyle guitar,” and he’s in the same league with such giants as Alex de Grassi, Will Ackerman, Leo Kottke, and those guys.
As an example of his astonishing technique, and in the interest of full disclosure, consider this: I am a sitar player, and I was honored to join music headliners Henke and Australian singer Wendy Rule as performing guests at the Florida Pagan Gathering for Beltane 2017. Someone got the idea that we three should jam together, and so we decided to perform the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” at the end of Rule’s concert on the FPG stage. But it was damn difficult for me to concentrate on my sitar – I just wanted to stare at Henke’s amazing technique and listen to him and the equally mesmerizing Rule.
Speaking of things Pagan, search for the “P” word on Henke’s website and it’s like searching for the fae in a lush flower garden: You know it’s there, somewhere, hidden in plain sight likely . . . Gotta be, right?
No matter. While his website cites his mainstream bona fides and mentions he has “shared the bill on the concert stage” with acts as diverse as Yes, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Morse, Yngwie Malmsteen, Richie Havens, Alex DeGrassi and others, festival-going Pagans know that Henke maintains a busy schedule on the Pagan-gathering circuit. (And besides, Paul McCartney, Adele, and other music artists likely don’t mention their spiritual paths in their bios.)
Furthermore, Henke reveals his soul in this passage on his website: “An avid hiker, he often brings his guitar along to create a spontaneous response to his outdoor settings. Mother Earth (Terra) as artist has given an immense living gallery from the humbling spectacle of her natural wonders to the simple beauty of a treetop against a blue sky. Her majestic legacy and the magical feeling of awe and peace inspire the compositions of this award-winning virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist.”
“Dance with the Fireflies,” Henke’s sixth solo CD, is 12 songs of gentle, bucolic beauty – some dark but most infused with light and joie de vivre.
“Secret Garden,” the opening ballad, sets the tone. With his guitar crafting fluttery notes that sound like butterflies dancing, Henke sings: “Faeries in the garden, faces looking up towards the sun. A garden gnome is laughing, he knows a secret joke on everyone. Standing in the sun, he knows the rain will come falling down. How does your garden grow? I think I know the key to your secret garden.”
“Where the Hills are Hollow” could be a companion song to “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” that 1899 poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the lure of the faery folk. Samuel Salsbury’s violin follows Henke’s racing guitar as Henke sings: “Come see the fae dance, don’t be afraid to follow the drum where hills are hollow. Moonlight, firelight dancing among the shadows, follow to where the hills are hollow . . . Clad in a new sky, peacock and lowly sparrow, songs sung where the hills are hollow. Song that they sing invites you to dream . . . Stand at the door of a new world, follow your heart and go through.”
As if to sonically portray one’s passage through that door, the song’s coda shape-shifts into a frenetic, joyous melange of tribal percussion, violin, animal calls, human – and fae? – voices, with H. Byron Ballard softly intoning, in Gaelic, “a welcome to the land of the Sidhe.”
And yet “Bees are Making Honey,” a simple, delicate love song, may have as much Pagan soul as any song on the CD, as Henke quietly celebrates “a lazy summer morning” by making coffee for his beloved while “the dog is stretching in the sun, cat’s in the corn . . . grapes on the vine, bees are making honey.”
The forlorn ballad “Morrighan — Queen of Ravens” honors that dark goddess of the Irish/Celtic pantheon, even as the song laments the ways of men: “She was a child of love and life, her innocence stolen by the knife. The Queen of Ravens in the dark, the rose’s thorn upon the harp. There were no tears for her to shed on a battlefield bloodied by the dead. These foolish children that are men, they fight and die and then they live again. Morrighan, send your ravens in the night, fly these warriors to the light. They burned her fields of flowers bare and planted gravestones everywhere. The wheel of life and death will turn, will these foolish mortals ever learn.”
Wry humor surfaces in “The Devil Never Sleeps,” as Henke’s spry guitar work and equally spry voice are joined by Ginger Ackley’s Celtic flute in a wisdom tale about a rabbit and a priest. The rabbit fears the hunter and the priest fears “temptation, danger everywhere, he prays his soul to keep, afraid to step out in the sun, afraid of loving anyone.”
The Devil wins, Henke sings, without having to pull any overt trickery: “Is it really safer hiding in the dark? The Devil hides within the shadows of your heart. Fear of darkness, fear of light, afraid of really living life. Priest and Rabbit close their eyes, afraid to really see. The Devil laughs, the Devil sings, he flies with stolen Angel’s wings. He dances naked in the night, the Devil never sleeps.”
On “A Forever Lullaby,” Henke sings: “The whippoorwill and the owl sing the moon, the shining stars call the tune. The faeries as they fly listen to wind song sigh a forever lullaby.”
Those faeries are pausing to listen to Brian Henke, too.
Editor’s Note: Click here to listen to “Dance with the Fireflies” on ReverbNation. Brian Henke’s CD’s are available for purchase through his website.