“This is the aim that we’ve been after — make your own modern stamp on the original.”
That’s how Finbar Clancy reconciles the legacy from his famous musical family with the release of Friends for Life, the new CD from his group the High Kings.
The High Kings exploded onto the folk scene in Ireland in 2008 with their self-titled CD and DVD that quickly achieved platinum sales status there. Group members are made up of equal parts pop and traditional backgrounds.
Clancy is a scion of Irish music’s legendary Clancy family; Martin Furey is the son of the prince of pipers, Finbar Furey; Brian Dunphy is the son of showband legend Sean Dunphy, and Darren Holden starred in over 1,000 performances of Billy Joel’s production Movin’ Out on Broadway.
They have played the White House — President Obama said, “I have two favorite Irish groups, U2 and the High Kings – and they have also played in front of 100,000 people at Trafalgar Square in London.
Friends for Life mixes it up with instrumentals and original songs that are sprinkled with traditional folk ditties, a first for the group.
“Whenever you try something new you have a ‘hold your breath’ moment,” Clancy explains. “Luckily, we had an enthusiastic approval from the fans that have heard the new songs at our recent gigs.”
“Walking down Broadway in the blinding light/the city is ringing in my ears/trying to work out how a few months turned into years/Oh Maggie give me one more chance/I swear I’ll make everything right,” Holden sings on “Oh Maggie,” a modern Irish immigrant song penned by Holden about traveling to the new world while missing your fammartinily back home. The harmonies on the song are pitch perfect, produced by men who know one another so well from being friends for life.
“Friends for Life,” the title track written by Holden and Furey, is an interesting track, with a sassy countrified guitar riff that adds a barbecue spice to the accordion’s melody.
“Friends for Life is a lively, fun-sounding album that took us five years to write and reflects how far the band has gone,” Furey says.
“Gucci” was penned by Furey, a banjo-based tune with a jazzy scat for a vocal. The lads make a joyous racket out of “Macalpines Fusiliers,” the famous Irish workman’s song, while the spine-chilling a capella version of “Peggy Gordon” calls to mind classic Clancy Brothers.
Friends for Life is not without the occasional misstep. The group’s attempt to modernize its sound includes covering modern songs like Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.”
The trouble is, most Irish and Irish American bands have covered this song so many times already that it’s become a bit of a cliché. The High Kings’ version is so well executed it comes across as polite and limp. Is it wrong to expect better than this from such a legendary brood, especially since Sharon Shannon, a co-writer of the song, produced this CD?
“Sharon Shannon showed interest in producing it,” Clancy says of Shannon. “We went to her studio in Galway and it just gelled — it was so easy to make. It was the most seamless transition from a song to an album than I ever encountered.
“She’s a genius. I never met someone who can compose a jig or a reel on the spot using a few chords. She picks up the accordion and then just go off on it. It was awesome. An absolute joy to work with her.”
An album highlight is “Come With Me Now,” a classic piece of storytelling with mentions of a “fair maiden” and taking her “across the high seas to begin a new life.”
It sports some sweet accordion and fiddling and stands up with some of the best work of the Clancy family. The song was penned by Clancy, who also wrote a fist-pumping “Ireland’s Shore” that will have you doing the jigs and reels at your next hooley!
“‘Come With Me Now’ is a song I wrote 15 years ago while on vacation with my sister Aoife,” Clancy explains. ‘Ireland’s Shore’ was my attempt to write a good old-fashioned Irish pot boiler.”
Clancy and the lads of the High Kings seem perfectly at ease looking toward the horizon with a few glances backward every once in a while to remind them whose strong Irish shoulders they are standing on.
“I love my family’s contribution to Irish culture and I am proud that I got the chance to tour with The Clancy Brothers,” Clancy says.
“My dad was recuperating from bypass surgery and I stepped in during their 1995 tour. I had a ball and I continued to play with them. I love the legacy stuff and I love the songs.”
Clancy is also aware that the audiences on this side of the Atlantic look to him to carry the torch for his family.
“I do think there’s an expectation when you walk out and announce you’re a Clancy and I want to live up to that, of course. American audiences in particular get sentimental. It brings them back. But you have to cut your own path in life. No one wants to be a carbon copy.”
With Friends for Life, the lads in the High Kings balance the old and new perfectly. They will be playing a few dates here in March, and Clancy promises that they’ll be back for the festivals over the summer.