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The Fureys: We even made Billy Connolly laugh with our mishaps

Four decades into an enduring career, folk legends The Fureys tell Simon Fallaha of sharing a joke with the comedy veteran, and the joys of playing live

Eddie and George Furey seem relaxed and cheerful as they chat in the comfortable and musically historic confines of Belfast's Ulster Hall. Back on the road following George's recovery from heart surgery last October, The Fureys' current ensemble are set to call in at the Waterfront Hall tomorrow and for them, it feels like it couldn't have come any sooner.

"Belfast is like Dublin to us - the people are brilliant in both places," says George. "We've been coming up here for many years, and have an awful lot of friends here. It's like a home from home."

The Irish folk band that initially consisted of four Dublin-born brothers - Finbar, Eddie, George and the late Paul, who died of cancer 13 years ago - have been warming hearts and lifting minds in their familial incarnation since 1976. And, in such downbeat days for the arts, Eddie and George's apparent sure-mindedness is refreshing.

Among numerous performances, recordings and worldwide tours, the band have featured on Top Of The Pops, and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics has credited Eddie with teaching him his first chords on the guitar. So, what's the secret of their success?

"I'm not sure there is one," Eddie says. "We just keep going. We love all sorts of lyrics, music and stories, and we always enjoy telling those stories on stage. To us, what's key about any live performance is to not only sing and talk about the songs, but to share your identity with your audience."

"No matter who performs with the band, we all know exactly what to do," adds George. "The people who join us are good musicians, so it's like having the original line-up together the whole time."

Surviving through transitions in an ever-changing musical world is difficult, yet The Fureys have successfully managed it for almost four decades. What's kept them going is a genuine belief in their own distinct approach, featuring instruments as diverse as flutes, keyboards, violins, guitars and accordions, as well as singers who share or shared a similar belief, like Gerry 'Baker Street' Rafferty.

"Years ago, I shared a flat with Gerry and Billy Connolly (yes, that Billy Connolly, in his folk-singing days) in Glasgow, while Gerry was writing all those great songs," says Eddie. "We recorded one of his tunes, Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway, and found he had a unique and insightful voice."

But what about Billy Connolly's comedic aptitude? It turns out that these were the days when he wasn't a comedian, but a folk singer. Yet both Connolly and The Fureys have made each other laugh quite wholeheartedly - on a number of occasions.

"We met him down at the Celtic Connections in Glasgow, went into a bar for a drink, and made Billy laugh for a change by telling tales about some of our mishaps", says George. "Tears were coming out of his eyes, and he said to us, 'Good job I only meet you now and then, otherwise I'll end up in a straitjacket!'"

To The Fureys, live performance is preferable to recording. "On stage, you always see an audience out there who appreciates what you do," says George. "We encourage everyone to sing with us, because that way, you'll have the atmosphere of somewhere like Dublin's Vicar Street, where you start the songs and people take over. When we see them enjoying it, we really enjoy it. That's what we live for."

The Fureys play Belfast's Waterfront Hall tomorrow. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk

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