It’s a simple enough formula. You take some of the finest ballads in the world, don’t do anything too fancy with them, get four consummate musicians to sing them, and you have one resounding success.
Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as all that as Darren Holden one of The High Kings explains.
“What we’re trying to do is bring a whole generation of young people into the genre,” he says. “People who might never have heard of The Black Velvet Band, but who identify with it when it’s done in a contemporary way, and with lots of energy. They realise, yeah, that’s our music, our own culture and it’s great.”
The energy thing is of course crucial to the success of The High Kings. They never appear in concert without giving one hundred per cent plus, with not only a high octane show, but with a genuine rapport with their audience.
“Because of my background,” Darren says, “I see the show as all important. We have to be visually exciting — as well as presenting the very best of Irish music, we have to offer pure entertainment. That really is what it’s all about, after all.”
The background of which Darren speaks is one that has seen him perform across the globe, from the White House to Japan.
In a long distinguished solo career, highlights have included taking the lead vocalist’s role in Riverdance as well as playing the lead role of Billy Joel in the Broadway musical Movin’ Out.
The latter role, from 2003-2007, was hand-picked by Billy himself, and saw Darren tour the USA, Canada, and Japan.
The role brought him to the notice of several record producers, and in August 2006 he released a new CD called Roadworks, much of which he wrote himself.
Produced by Bryan Steele (Movin’ Out) and Tommy Byrnes (Billy Joel, Stray Cats Enrique), the album was a success in the US and Japan.
In June 2007, Darren was invited to become a member of The High Kings.
Their debut CD was released on EMI in February 2008 and reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard world music charts, as well as hitting the top spot on various Amazon Music Charts.
It reached no. 7 back home in Ireland and has since been certified platinum.
But fame and success, welcome though they are, are not the guiding principles of Darren’s career. For him, the music has always come first — and it’s undoubtedly in the blood of this Kilkenny man from Mooncoin.
“My great grandfather Jim Byrne was a travelling uilleann piper, a wandering minstrel if you like,” he says. “In the early years of the last century he’d wander around across Ireland — he was from Wicklow — playing his tunes and even teaching the pipes. He died after playing one night in Aughrim, way back in 1931. The locals buried him, but the family never knew where his grave was.
Darren adds: “Back in those days communications were very haphazard, and nobody back at home even knew he had died for six or seven years. But recently me and my da decided to do a road trip to see if we could find out anything. We drove about the locality, and asked about, and finally uncovered his grave in a field near Aughrim. So at least he has a decent headstone now.”
Jim Byrne also has the finest epitaph any musician can have – he passed it on. Not just to the ad hoc pupils he taught en route, but also down through the generations to his great grandson.
Darren has been immersed in music since a young lad: “I studied the classical piano, and that gave me a terrific grounding in music. Onstage I play the accordion and mandoline, which obviously fits the sound of The High Kings beautifully. We’re also very big on harmonies, which again we can sort out ourselves because we all naturally occupy a good harmonic range.”
Despite a hectic touring schedule — the band will be in Britain in August concentrating mainly on small theatres — Darren still manages to find time to do some songwriting.
“Our next album, which will be our forth, will be 50 per cent original material. But of course, because of our overall sound we have to try to make everything more or less fit into the same genre. It’s not always easy, but it’s exciting and challenging.”
Irish music has been through many evolutions, seen many developments, in its long history. Even over just the last 60 years our native music has seen much innovation and imagination that has taken it onto the world stage — from the Dubliners through Planxty and the Pogues to Riverdance. But at its heart it remains a simple folk music, with its roots in Irish communities everywhere.
The High Kings seem set to take the music to a new audience, having pulled off a difficult trick — by breathing new life into the old music, preserving its integrity, but all the while pushing its boundaries.