Darren Holden on The High Kings, Billy Joel and life on the road…
“I used to hear him on his keyboard every night,” a neighbour of Darren Holden’s told me, recalling the music that happily wafted down Mooncoin’s Main Street in the early to mid-1980s. “He’s toured the world a few times over since but he’s the very same now as he was then. Now that’s the mark of someone special.” These words were shared while Darren and fellow guest of honour Vicky Phelan posed for photographs at the Coláiste Cois Siúire Student Awards Night on Wednesday evening last. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere, let alone within the radius of Mooncoin, who’d disagree with such a sentiment. He’s a class act in every sense.
Darren Holden is a pleasure to listen to – he’s in fantastic voice as he demonstrated at last Wednesday’s awards – and always makes for good company so the catch-up on home soil last week was as enjoyable as it was long overdue. The weekend ahead is another busy one for Darren as The High Kings (under new management) perform at Carrick-on-Suir’s Strand Theatre this Friday night as part of the Clancy Brothers Music & Arts Festival. The following night, the group will be on stage once more in Germany, “and then back home again on Sunday. All go!” The group last played the Strand two years ago and they’re delighted to be back in the Clancy Brothers’ homestead, delivering their take on the songs immortalised by the Clancys and Tommy Makem.
“It’s always a great festival to play, a lovely theatre to perform in and it’s always sold out very quickly. It’s obviously very special for Finbarr (Bobby’s son), it’s his home town, it’s his special night and there’s nothing like playing at home; we played in Mooncoin a few years back and that for me, was just unbelievable. Finbarr’s Mam is still around, thankfully and she and the rest of the family always come to our local gigs, so it’s a really emotionally charged thing for him. I’m sure he wishes his Dad was up there on stage alongside us but he’s really carrying that great legacy along with him, and it’s a huge legacy.” The song collecting feats of ‘Mammy’ Clancy and Sarah Makem., which pre-dated the folk revival that their sons played such a starring role in over 50 years ago, is something that Darren, Finbarr and Brian Dunphy are acutely aware of.
Since 2008, The High Kings have delivered their take on a range of tracks that filled the White Horse Tavern, Carnegie Hall and the National Concert Hall on many a raucous, anecdote filled night, full of fun and thoughts of home. “And all those stories are known the world over,” Darren continued. “When we go to America, whether we’re playing in big cities or smaller towns, we get people coming along to the gigs who know all about the Clancys, their stories and their exploits and it’s fascinating to sit around with people afterwards and hear their own stories; they’re more educated than us about the Clancys and the folk revival and it’s fantastic to keep picking up these new nuggets of information when we’re touring.”
The life of any successful musician makes touring and all that goes with it unavoidable, and The High Kings have certainly clocked up many an air-mile in their dozen years together, as Darren detailed. “Well the last couple of years have been extremely busy,” he said. “We released ‘The Best Of’ compilation album coming up on two years ago now and we thought the tour was going to run for a year but it kept getting extended all the time, with various promoters from different parts of the world wanting tours so I would say that over the past two years, I was home in total for about four months, which was crazy but again this is something we’re starting to look at. We’re trying to tour a bit more intelligently now so that we can be home a bit more; I’ve three kids now, they’re 14, 11 and 10 so I can’t be away for that length of time anymore. Michelle (Darren’s wife) is great and looks after everything while I’m away but for me personally I hate being away from them for that length of time, Brian has a son of 14 and Finbarr doesn’t have any kids but he’s married to Gráinne and you have to have your family time. If you spend all your time away, it does become a little bit monotonous even if you’re out there doing your thing all the time. You do have to break it up and balance it a hell of a lot better. The two hours on stage is my favourite part of it all but the travelling, the getting there, being up at five or six in the morning and travelling for 10 hours in a bus to do it all over again and I’m not going to lie, I find myself moaning from time to time when we’re sat in a plane or a bus but when you’re out there on the stage and you hear a crowd, it’s brilliant. There’s nothing like it.”
Darren’s career trajectory, from performing in bands across the South East and further afield during the 1990s eventually led to ‘Riverdance’ (for four years) before landing his major US breakthrough in 2003 when landing the lead role in the Billy Joel musical ‘Movin’ Out’.
“I couldn’t have dreamt that up, to be honest,” he said. “I always heard about the idea of being in the right place at the right time without it ever impacting on me personally until ‘Movin’ Out’ came along. I was out in New Jersey with ‘Riverdance’ when an agent of mine rang me and told me I need to get into Manhattan; there’s an audition going on for ‘Movin’ Out’ and my initial thought was, well what chance do I have, surely there’s somebody who can do the job over here but apparently there wasn’t so in I went on the very last day of rehearsals and literally got offered the job by Billy Joel himself – he was there at the audition, wearing a baseball hat with the head down – and I didn’t know he was there while I was auditioning and had I know he was there I’d have messed it up from start to finish so his discretion was good for me. And it was brilliant and what I learned from Billy is hard to measure, right down to the little musical things and not only that but things as intricate as pronunciations of certain words, just to be more involved in the song than just singing the song, to learn to study and live through the lyrics. And he even sent me to his buddies out on Long Island, we used to go on boat rides and he used to tell me just to listen to these guys, converse with them and then apply that to the music in the show, to learn to sing with that accent, stuff that I probably wouldn’t have come up with myself so it was nice to be able to get that sort of advice from a performer of Billy’s stature, and it’s served me well during the show – it was 26 songs a night – and ever since. It did wonders for my stamina and vocal strength.”
Interestingly, Darren added: “And God knows what the future holds. I hung out with Billy last year when he was in Dublin and he mentioned that there is a slight possibility that ‘Movin’ Out’ will be coming back at some point. Now my situation is different now from where it was 16 years ago, I’m not sure if I could go on the road for that length of time again, being married with three children but if there was something like a six-month slot that was offered to me, then I’d definitely have to look at that.”
The invitation to Coláiste Cois Siúire was one that Darren was delighted to accept, and he performed four well-known numbers (‘Red Is The Rose’, ‘Rocketman’, ‘My Life’ and ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’) before debuting ‘Brave’, a stunning song penned in Vicky Phelan’s honour.
“I don’t get home often enough,” he admitted. “I’m living in Dublin but when you have kids, and when you’re involved in the music industry in Dublin and then doing all the domestic things, the school run, the soccer run and so on, I don’t get back to Mooncoin as much as I’d like to. But in the past two years I’ve made a solid effort to get home at least once every two months if I can at all, and sure I love it when I’m down here. Whenever I’m home, I never want to leave but then when I get back to Dublin, I’m okay about it all again, I’m sure it’s common to most people living away from home when you have that fleeting minute about the draw of home, but I always love being back here. There’s nowhere else like it.”
For booking details on The High Kings at the Strand Theatre, visit clancybrothersfestival.com or call the Strand Theatre Box Office on
051-645050 (11am to 3pm today and Thursday)