Belfast Telegraph

Hugo Duncan: Fans up and down the country stepping out for summer of dancing

Robert Mizzell
Robert Mizzell
Mike Denver
New single: up and coming artist Natasha Magee
Talented: Olivia Douglas

By Hugo Duncan

Summer is here and the living is easy. And that can mean only one thing - more and more people are destined to flock to country dances over the next three months to lap up the music of their favourite bands.

It has been a tradition that country dancing tends to come into its own at this time of the year, even if last year proved something of an exception, because of the exceptionally long period of spectacular weather that we enjoyed.

No one, but no one wanted to be indoors, which meant that the outdoor festivals thrived.

There are indications, though, that the regular country dancing venues will host rather more patrons this summer.

As I see it, there are two reasons for that — the big bands are getting bigger and for avid dancers distance is no object when it comes to travelling to see their favourite band in action.

I well remember, at the height of the showband boom, I would play with my band in the Parting Glass in Raphoe on a Saturday night and then head to Cork the following night, where I would meet up with some of the folk who had been in Raphoe!

You may think I am exaggerating when I say this, but I can assure you it is true.

It is also a fact that dancers like the comfort and convenience of hotel dancing now. The so-called ‘ballrooms’ of the past were, in reality, rural halls with basic amenities, but dancing was king then and no one queried the facilities.

It’s all rather different now. When Jimmy Buckley plays at the Silverbirch Hotel in Omagh tonight, I am assured by friends of mine from Co Down that they will be there, while I know for a fact that people from Donegal will also be there.

They will book in, enjoy a meal, head into the dance, then retire to bed before getting up to have breakfast and perhaps head off to another dance the next night.

Obviously, it’s the more popular bands, such as Mike Denver, Michael English, Robert Mizzell, Patrick Feeney and, of course, the irrepressible Jimmy Buckley, who can depend on this level of loyalty and commitment from their followers.

Right across Ulster, from the Allingham Arms Hotel in Bundoran to the Millbrook Lodge Hotel in Ballynahinch and from the Mourne Country Hotel in Newry up to the Bushtown Hotel in Coleraine, dancers are out in force just now — and that, to my mind, offers considerable encouragement.

Let’s not forget that country music and dancing form a relatively thriving business with several ‘sub-contractors’ — garages, bars, outfitters and printers — benefiting handsomely.

Robert Mizzell perhaps best sums up the current climate when he says: “It’s great to see that people are still coming out to dances and concerts.

“Time has moved on and, with country music weekends, trips to the continent, festival engagements and fundraising dances, bands are kept very busy indeed.

“I think we all like the summer months, because travel is easier, a feelgood factor tends to abound and people just like to socialise more.”

I remember when it was not unusual for bands to play five or six nights a week, but that has in most instances now been trimmed back to three.

The emphasis appears to be rather more on quality than quantity right now and, while it is difficult to predict how things will look in the future, I think we are better to make the best of things as we find them right now.

I hear people bemoaning the fact that the great days of the showband boom have come and gone, but there have been big changes in many walks of life.

No, I am glad to see people going out to enjoy themselves and make the most of their nights out.

Life is for living and music and dancing just help to make it even more enjoyable.

My hug smudges bride's make-up

I made a promise some time ago to a young groom that I would deliver flowers to the home of his bride on the morning of their wedding.

That was last Saturday and groom Stephen Donnell was very much on the ball as he phoned to remind me of my commitment.

I had to get my skates on, but still managed to arrive at the home of the bride Kerri Nicholl in Ardstraw, near Newtownstewart.

When she opened the door to me at half-past 11 (the wedding service was at 12), I was given a lovely big hug. But Kerri suddenly discovered that she had an extra last-minute chore to undertake.

Concert to raise funds for cross-community project proves a runaway success

The concert to aid the Ulster Project organised by Scott Fallis in the Ardowen Theatre, Enniskillen last weekend proved a big success.

The Ulster Project is a cross-community initiative which has been launched in Fermanagh and the concert raised funds which will help 18 young people to head off to the United States on a community venture.

I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the concert and I must hail the contribution of multi-talented pianist Robbie Pierson, whose musicianship shone through.

Tonight, a special formal dance, which has become something of an annual affair, will take place in Newcastle’s Slieve Donard Hotel.

Those attending will for the most part be members of Downpatrick Sports and Social Club and everyone will be immaculately turned out.

Country Harmony and yours truly are looking forward to supplying the music for what promises to be a very important occasion.

Meanwhile, Natasha Magee, daughter of popular country star Curtis Magee, has just brought out a new single, which she  composed herself.

Natasha certainly seems to be following in her popular father’s footsteps just now, as she is not only a fine singer, but also possesses an engaging personality.

She has performed on numerous occasions, along with her father, and she certainly looks very much at ease on the stage.

She is determined to make it in her own right and I wish her every encouragement for the future — I have no doubt we will be hearing a lot more about her in the very near future.

Curtis will have to look to his laurels!

“I got carried away hugging you, Hugo, and now I’ll have to go and do my make-up again — it’s going to be a race against the clock for me!”

Future bright in hands of young stars like Keelan and Olivia

Keelan Arbuckle launched his new CD in style at the Biddy Friel’s complex near Letterkenny last weekend.

A young man who has already made a big impact in the Irish country music scene, Keelan is undoubtedly talented and has a bright future ahead.

He has formed a new band, The Causeways, and if Keelan represents the youthful face of the outfit, then the vastly experienced Eamon Lynch brings his own special touch to it on keyboards.

Eamon is a veteran country musician and I have no doubt he will prove a key cog in The Causeways.

While Keelan not surprisingly stole the show at his launch, Offaly singer Olivia Douglas also won the hearts of the audience.

In addition, she is a proficient accordionist — a female Brendan Shine, you might say.

She delivered a very polished programme of songs and the fact that she has a great stage presence ensured she received a tremendous reception.

Donegal singer Paul Kelly, Sabrina Fallon, Simon Peters and the emerging Andrew McMurdie were among the other acts on the bill.

I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of entertainment. It was great to see so many young performers strutting their stuff.

I know that Keelan and The Causeways have played some dates already and, by all accounts, they are going down very well.

There is no doubt that while the older, more-established, singers are still holding the spotlight, I always think that there is room for up-and-coming talent — and there is certainly plenty of that around just now.

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