The pedestal of Irish folk music which accommodates legends like The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners needs to make room for another band due legendary status, The High Kings.
It is now 15 years since the band was formed and 2023 is set to be a landmark year for the foursome. To mark the occasion, they have earmarked their global travel as The High Kings XV Tour. It has just kicked off with a sold out seven-city milestone tour of Australia and New Zealand.
On June 23, the band will release its eighth studio album The Road Not Taken, billed as “full of brand-new songs.” A single, “The Streets of Kinsale,” featuring Journey frontman Steve Perry, has already been released. To launch the album, the group has a number of gigs in Ireland and the U.K. before heading to the U.S. for an 11-concert tour starting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on July 8. There is a show in Ontario, Canada, to round off the North America tour in September.
The original songs on the new album will continue the transformation of the band’s material from staunchly traditional to a 21st edition of Celtic roots music. The four founding-members of the band – Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy, Darren Holden and Martin Furey – all had Irish folk blue-blood running through their veins. Both Dunphy and Holden had, at times, been members of Michael Flatley’s musical-dance extravaganza Riverdance, while Furey was the son of Irish multi-instrumentalist Finbar Furey, a member of the famous band of brothers, The Furey’s.
And the fourth founding member, Finbarr Clancy, is what you might call a member of Irish musical royalty. His father Bobby became a member of another famous Irish family band, the Legendary Clancy Brothers, who, with Tommy Makem, introduced Irish music to the world when they were part of the great folk music revival in Greenwich Village, New York, in the early 1960’s. A young Bob Dylan was in awe of the Clancy Brothers, openly admitting he used many of their melodies and themes to structure his own writing.
Dylan would go on to form personal relationships with both Makem and another member of the Clancy clan, Liam. Dylan felt that he repaid his debt to the Clancy’s in 1992 when, by then very-famous, he invited Makem and the Clancy Brothers to perform at his star-studded 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden.
It was later in the 1990’s that Finbarr Clancy – then in his mid-twenties - would actually join his father’s band, singing and playing banjo, electric bass and flute. He would tour with the various incarnations of the Clancy Brothers until father Bobby died in 2002.
Martin Furey left The High Kings in 2017, to be replaced by George Murphy who remained with the group for two years before himself leaving. The current fourth member is multi-musician Paul O’Brien.
The sheer musical depth and flexibility of The High Kings was evident at the final gig of the Australian and New Zealand tour at Auckland’s Americana venue, the Tuning Fork. Here, a sold-out crowd of predominantly-young fans came not to jig to Irish music, but to God-damn stomp their feet. The band duly obliged.
There were rip-roaring versions of the old classics like “Black Velvet Band,” “Leaving of Liverpool,” “Dirty Old Town” and Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” Here is a band in which a foursome share 13 instruments and it was often a case of swapping-instruments-at-40-paces between songs. This was no better personified than by O’Brien who, in one moment, might have the tin whistle to his lips, the next the harmonica and then a pipe flute – not to mention a guitar across his shoulders!
Besides their multi-instrumental skills, here is a band with four pitch-perfect voices. Harmonies abound and, on many songs, the vocal leads are passed around, seemingly willy-nilly!
Clancy did himself proud with a couple of songs to himself. He sang a commanding rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme” before showing a perceptive understanding of his audience, and whereabouts, by delivering a simply stunning version of the Eric Bogle war song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” This song is popular on ANZAC Day – Australia and New Zealand’s Memorial Day – and the significance of his gesture was not lost on the grateful home fans.
But perhaps the finest solo vocal of the night came from Darren Holden when he endearingly-delivered “The Town I Love So Well,” a beautiful song written by Northern Irish musician Phil Coulter about his childhood in Derry. Holden is a recognised solo artist who has recorded three successful albums, not to mention the fact that he plays accordion, keyboard, mandolin and guitar with the group.
So what can The High Kings not do. Well, to be honest, not much. This was expertly illustrated by two stunning a cappella, the intention being to demonstrate they still yearn to stick close to their traditional Irish musical roots.
The first was a track, titled “1845”, from the new album The Road Not Taken. This is an original song, telling of the struggles by the farmers of Kilkenny during the great famine and other hard times. There can be no better than this four-plus minutes promotion for the new release.
The second a cappella was shorter, just a repeat of the refrain from the beautiful group-arrangement of “Red Is The Rose.” Irish beauty in lyrics:
Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows/Fair is the lily of the valley Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne/ But my love is fairer than any
And to think, this band is more than just four beautiful voices. A corner-bar in far-off Auckland is no White House or baseball stadium, but no one appeared to tell The High Kings.
Look out Eau Claire!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation