This little post started as a longish “Recently Added” entry about a young Irish folk band called The High Kings. But it quickly blossomed into something more. As I traced the evolution and growth of the band, I began noticing a lot of similarities between this group and our own Signature Sound in southern gospel. Both groups play a very similar role in their respective genres, bringing old music to a younger generation while trying to retain their own artistic identity. Before I knew it, I was writing a mini-dissertation on marketing, musical artistry, and the heritage of traditional music. So, come along with me for the ride, and discover some great new music at the same time! I’ll leave you to savor it for a little bit while I spend the next week cramming for finals and going to Christmas parties.
I well remember when I first encountered Signature Sound. At the time, I was very new to southern gospel music. When I watched Signature Sound’s revitalized performances of classics like “Happy Rhythm,”“Glory, Glory Clear the Road,”“Will the Lord Be With Me,” and “Heavenly Parade” among many others, I felt like a whole new world was opening up before me. I immediately ran out and bought their music, something I rarely do for any group. They made me excited about gospel music and thirsty for more.
I felt a similar way when I recently discovered The High Kings. Discovered and assembled by producer David Downes, this group first burst onto the scene in 2008, with a self-titled debut and accompanying PBS special that went double platinum and won fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Like EHSS, they were young guys performing the classics of their musical heritage in a fresh, dynamic way: “Rocky Road to Dublin,”“Little Beggarman,” “The Wild Rover” and many others. Although Signature Sound lay quietly undiscovered for a couple of years before seeing chart success, they too had a similar breakthrough with their self-titled album and Get Away Jordan.
The High Kings, like Signature Sound, are a legacy group. Finbarr Clancy is the nephew of the renowned Clancy Brothers, who, along with Tommy Makem, were front-runners in the international Irish folk boom of the 1960s. Martin Furey is the son of Finbarr Furey, whose own sibling group was a contemporary of the Clancys. Baritone Brian Dunphy’s father Sean Dunphy was an Irish showband legend. Even odd man out Darren Holden had a great-grandfather famed for his skill on the pennywhistle. (So when some blonde interviewer chick asked “Wow, so, like, where did you guys learn to play all these instruments?” I couldn’t help cringing. Genetics, honey.) Like Signature Sound with the Cathedrals and the Statesmen, the High Kings unlocked the treasure trove of their predecessors’ music for a whole new generation.
However, both groups initially had their detractors, who believed their breakthrough efforts were over-produced—too perfect and shiny to be true. To some extent, these suspicions were accurate, but it wasn’t necessarily the artists’ fault. The High Kings filmed their PBS special 100% live over the course of two nights (I have this on the authority of one of the live musicians who worked closely with them), but a careful listen reveals that, in typical TV fashion, certain numbers were heavily mixed with studio tracks in post-production. This applied both to vocals and instrumentals. (To give one example of a clue, the mighty drumroll heard before the bagpipes’ entrance at 2:29 in “The Parting Glass” couldn’t be produced by the live percussionist, who is playing cymbals at the moment.) The choice may have partly been motivated by a desire to create perfect aural continuity when footage was spliced together from both nights.
Fortunately this wasn’t the case for every track, and most step-outs were preserved live throughout. Among the “live live” tracks, “Phil the Fluter’s Ball” is the most impressive. See also the arresting “Ar Eireann Ni Neosainn Ce Hi” for some top-notch vocal and whistle work. Another unspoiled favorite of mine is the gorgeous chestnut sometimes titled “Will Ye Go Lassie Go?” (bafflingly unromantic second verse aside). For some reason I always think of the ending of The Last Battle—when the children are striding through that green, sunlit land and the eagle announces, “I have seen it all… Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia!” So I imagine it will be with the green mountains of Scotland. Though with my strange sense of humor, I feel like the repetition of “wild mountain thyme” throughout begs for a running commentary: “Last one to the wild mountain thyme is a rotten egg!” “Again with the wild mountain thyme. But of course my love, whatever makes your little Celtic heart go pitter-a-pat.” Ah, will you look at all the old dames mouthing along!
Those jumpers have a little history behind them. They were the very same jumpers worn by the Clancy Brothers when they broke into the American market. Their producer was looking for the right way to “package” them, and when he saw the Aran jumpers that their mother had sent over from Ireland, he said “That’s it! That’s the look I want!” Signature Sound was similarly accused of using stacks and overdubs to sweeten their sound on live DVDs. And again, the detractors had a point. You can definitely hear significant stacking in numbers like “Stand By Me” and “Trying to Get a Glimpse.” However, like with The High Kings, this may well have been the work of the marketers who packaged and sold the product, rather than the artists’ own choice on concert night. For both groups, the tampering was made all the more frustrating by the fact that they obviously had the talent to tote the mail minus bells and whistles. This was already proven by EHSS in some pre-breakthrough material like the aforementioned “Heavenly Parade”:
See also their piano-only versions of “Lovest Thou Me” and “Lead Me, Guide Me”: The latter could be compared with the High Kings’ tight, tongue-in-cheek acapella take on “Jimmy Murphy.”
Both groups had experienced a mixed blessing: They were marketable. Good-looking, vigorous, vocally gifted singers with youthful appeal, what producer’s eyes wouldn’t see dollar signs? But their true artistic potential was still somewhat buried under all the hype and production gloss, which actually undersold what they could really do. The High Kings were originally billed as “Celtic Woman, Dude Version,” when their only resemblance was that the same producer happened to found both groups. Clearly that most dubious honor rested with Celtic Thunder instead. Fortunately, those of us who can tell the difference between true artists and breathy wannabes with bad hair are under no illusions. End snarky Celtic Thunder digression. (They COULD be worse, and hey, both of their good singers aren’t too bad.)
At a certain point, both Signature Sound and the High Kings decided it was time to step away from the highly produced sound that had made them so popular and prove their mettle as fully mature artists. In Signature Sound’s case, that meant ultimately hiring a band, while The High Kings honed their own craft as a four-man acoustic folk outfit. Some of the gloss rubbed off as a result, but it was replaced with an authenticity that was ultimately much more satisfying to the musical listener.
A key moment in this transition for The High Kings was their cover of the minor-key ballad “Step It Out Mary.” They took the song places it had never been taken before, creating a richly complex arrangement that stretched all their abilities to the max. Their fiery live performance was an explosion of raw talent, proving once and for all that they needed only their four unfiltered voices and the instruments in their own hands to create magic on the stage. (Note: This particular folk song deals with the tragedy of forced marriage and suicide, so the tone is rather dark.)
This song came from their sophomore project Memory Lane, which eschewed the multi-layered lushness of album one for a rootsier, acoustic sound. This new approach allowed each member to shine individually. While Holden and Dunphy are trained vocalists with backgrounds in pop and musical theater (Holden is, believe it or not, best known in the states for covering Billy Joel songs on Broadway!) Clancy and Furey have a rougher, more textured sound. The self-titled debut smoothed out the unique edge that this gave to the group’s blend, but Memory Lane accented it. The group began to loosen up their stage presence and settle comfortably into what they jokingly called “folk and roll.” See also this delightful performance of Finnegan’s Wake, aka The Most Fun Funeral Song Ever. (Lyrics here. I promise you will need them!)
Although Signature Sound’s evolution was more gradual, one could say the Influenced recordings began a similar transition for them. Recorded completely live around two microphones with no artificial tuning, these records allowed listeners to enjoy a whole album of pure quartet awesomeness. “Swinging On the Golden Gate” was a popular hit from the first installment, as was the “flat-footed” favorite “Walk With Me”:
The High Kings began experimenting with one-or-two-mike material as well. Compare with this performance of “Red is the Rose.” Note the brief smile they share towards the end as Martin Furey cocks his head to make sure he’s on pitch. This is what pure live singing looks like:
At this time, they also made the brilliant choice to mingle the standard drinking/kill the British tunes with folk revivalist material written during the 1960s and 70s. This gave them easily their two most potent ballads, first introduced on the project Live in Ireland: Darren Holden’s definitive cover of “The Town I Loved So Well” (lyrics) and Brian Dunphy’s majestic interpretation of “Dublin in the Rare Auld Times” (lyrics) Both songs are rooted in a deep sense of place, movingly expressing the grief that comes when the things we hold dear pass away, be it through wars or the simple “progress” of time. Dunphy had first recorded “Rare Auld Times” on a solo project, but The High Kings’ arrangement took it to an entirely new level. I defy anyone not to be brushing away a tear when the whole audience belts out the chorus together:
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“The Town I Loved” is definitely a Big ballad, covering roughly three decades in six minutes, but the arrangement flows so well, and Holden sings it so compellingly that the listener is quickly caught up in the story. Bless his heart, he said in one interview that when they first began staging it, he kept thinking, “This is so long, I’m probably boring everybody.” Ach no, my lad. (Note: This is pretty dramatic stuff, so there is a very apt and sincerely meant “Oh my God” in the lyrics.)
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Signature Sound already had some big ballads under their belt, but they unlocked the power of “less is more” by gently re-working and stripping down their old arrangements. Compare this simple, moving performance of the forgotten Statesmen gem “Forgiven Again” with the original sky-high orchestration: At their best, both Signature Sound and The High Kings convey the sense that they are facing the future while lovingly looking over their shoulder at the same time. Their music has a history behind it, and consequently the ability to unite generations. Who can forget that final NQC performance of “Suppertime” by an enfeebled George Younce, with the boys gathered protectingly round him? And as totally unrehearsed and full of errors as this concert clip of “Rare Auld Times” with Brian Dunphy’s father Sean is, the warmth and love between father and son is palpable. Note the overwhelming crowd response even though the elder Dunphy’s voice is clearly long, long past its prime, as well as the tastefully deft way the band keeps shifting gears to match his pace. And the way the old man looks around him with that satisfied twinkle in his eye, shaking his head at how they are carrying the torch—how many genres of music could produce such a rich moment?
Then there’s Adam’s story. Adam was a young boy with a keen ear and a voracious appetite for Irish folk music. He’d committed numerous classics to memory, including all of The High Kings’ albums. When he first saw them in concert, he was randomly selected from the audience to receive a pennywhistle (an utterly brilliant idea Martin came up with for kids at their live shows). But when Adam began suffering from searing, continuous headaches, his parents received the shattering news that he had a benign brain tumor. Doctors removed most of it, but a portion remained to be monitored indefinitely. He decided to write a fan letter to The High Kings expressing how much their music meant to him. In return, they arranged for him to get on stage with them for a soundcheck at another show. They were instantly charmed and came up with the idea of recording a song together live on TV, to be released as a charity single with proceeds benefiting children’s hospitals (including his own). The song chosen was “Whiskey In the Jar,” a roguish, spirited toe-tapper from Memory Lane about a highway robber who gets a taste of his own medicine. The result was pure Irish gold. Here is that performance, plus a short interview afterwards. (And here are the mostly accurate lyrics. Trust me, you really need these!)
The ribbon to tie it all off was that when Memory Lane went platinum, they had a fifth certification plaque specially crafted and engraved for Adam, and presented it to him on stage in a follow-up performance. Ladies and gentlemen, if that doesn’t define class I really don’t know what does.
What does the future hold for both groups at this point? Signature Sound has weathered several member changes to emerge with their sound as solid as ever and an album critics have hailed as the best of the year, which offered the perfect blend of rooted southern quartet singing and their “signature” progressive edge. Although they no longer have a band, they are now fully secure in their own artistic identity, with plenty of creative energy to fill the years ahead:
Meanwhile, The High Kings have decided to dip into the fresh well of their own members’ songwriting talents for a yet-to-be-released album which promises to be some of their most mature work yet. Particularly notable is Darren Holden’s gorgeously danceable contribution “Oh Maggie,” leaps and bounds ahead of his work as a middling pop artist in the early 90s. Joining The High Kings has taken his natural talent and turned it into something truly special:
The new album also offers listeners an even better glimpse into the haunting singer-songwriter vibe that Martin Furey and Finbarr Clancy bring to the group. And the group’s confident, lusty take on the sea shanty “Johnny Leave Her” reveals amazing growth in their acapella presence even since “Red is the Rose”:
And on that high note, I’ll bring my ramblings to a close and allow you, my long-suffering readers, to offer your own thoughts. Do you agree with the parallels I’ve drawn between these two very different artists and their musical styles? How difficult is it for an artist to execute the balance they have both maintained between musical past and present? Do you believe they will continue to succeed in maintaining it themselves? And finally, what is it about traditional music that causes its artists to exchange the empty aloofness of celebrity for the warmth of an inter-generational musical conversation?