Belfast Telegraph

Co Down singer who quit live gigs after a terrifying paramilitary encounter on how he was persuaded back to the mic

The Co Down man explains to Ivan Little how a conversation with musician Gareth Dunlop prompted his first album

Wilfie Gibert at home in Holywood
Wilfie Gibert at home in Holywood
Wilfie Gibert at home in Holywood
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It took seasoned Co Down singer Wilfie Gilbert 56 years to release his first album, but he needed no time at all to decide who he should dedicate it to. And not only did he honour his late brother Vincent, who died suddenly in December 2015, but he also wrote an emotional song for him for the record.

The track Miss You recalls the good times the two brothers had as they grew up together and in later life in Holywood where Wilfie still lives.

"The song just came to me. And it was very much about Vinty who I do miss every day as the song says. He was an inspiration to me," he says.

The loss of Vinty also proved to be an incentive for Wilfie to resolve to finally bring out an album of his compositions.

"I've been writing songs for as long as I can remember," says Wilfie. "But it was only after Vinty passed away that I realised that life is so short and that I just had to get on with it."

Music had been the lifeblood of the Gilbert family in Wilfie's youth. He says: "Someone was always singing and there were parties all the time. It was only natural for me to pick up a guitar and to sing too at the age of 10 or 11.

"My father, who was a singer, was happy to see me throwing myself into the music because he was determined that no-one else would get their claws into any of us during the Troubles."

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Wilfie's journey to becoming a full-time musician has been a long and colourful one with a myriad of jobs in the background.

He explains: "I worked in a petrol station, I had a job with a car hire firm, I did car valeting for about three years and I was also a window cleaner before working as a welder in the shipyard and setting up my own engineering business."

Wilfie never lost his passion for music, however. He'd played small gigs on his own before forming a band with brother Vinty.

He says: "We were in a five-piece outfit called In Broad Daylight and we won a major band festival which took us to Dublin where we lost out in the Irish final to a group with Glen Hansard in the line-up."

Wilfie's group played regular support gigs to Belfast's Energy Orchard and even toured with the James Brown Band, who came to Ireland without their legendary American soul singer who was otherwise engaged… in jail.

Wilfie's days on the road came to an abrupt halt, however, after an ill-fated appearance in a Belfast pub where, unknown to the band, paramilitaries were planning a memorial for one of their members.

Wilfie recalls: "We were doing our usual cover songs, but at the break we were told that we weren't playing the right tunes. There was even a show of strength by the paramilitaries in tribute to their late member.

"And we were threatened with guns because we weren't doing the business. The paramilitaries were all blocked and with the weapons it wasn't a good combination."

Wilfie says the unnerving experience was his Don McLean moment, the day the music died for him.

He adds: "It was insane. Mental. I bailed out immediately. And for three years I wouldn't play music anywhere."

Eventually Wilfie was persuaded to do the odd solo gig again in areas where he felt safer. "In north Down, mostly," he says.

His day job - in engineering - flourished for Wilfie as the construction industry boomed, but in 2008 the economic downturn caused him massive problems.

"It was tough. I knew there wasn't a pile I could do apart from music," says Wilfie, who by a serendipitous twist of fate soon forged a friendship that was to change his musical career for ever.

"My daughter Rebecca came in one night from a show at the Empire and told me I had to go and see a singer called Gareth Dunlop who was playing in the Rotterdam bar a few nights later. She told me I would love his music.

"Anyway I took her advice and Gareth was amazing. I introduced myself to him and we became very good friends."

The upshot some time later was that Gareth and Wilfie set up a recording studio in Dundonald and two other musicians, John McCullough and Paul Hamilton, got involved.

The studio was used by a significant number of local musicians, including singer Foy Vance, and Van Morrison even recorded demos there.

The studio collaboration led to Wilfie and some of his colleagues playing more live gigs together.

And as Gareth Dunlop's career blossomed with his signing by major players in the industry, Wilfie found himself stepping in to more of his concerts.

But it was the tragic death of his brother that he says "gave me the get up and go to pull the plug" on his other business interests.

Vinty was a well-known musician himself who operated the Guitar Rooms in Holywood with a friend. The father-of-three was also an adventurer who had sailed across the Atlantic.

Wilfie says: "I realised after his death that there was more to life and that music was all I really wanted to do. The business was only to make money to sustain my family."

Since he turned full-time, Wilfie has gone from strength to strength.

Non-musical types might be surprised to find out how busy a singer can be in Belfast, but Wilfie says: "The scene is unbelievable. The Cathedral Quarter in particular never eases up. There are seven bars doing music seven nights a week and they can't get enough singers.

"It's not like that in Dublin or anywhere else that I know. Some pubs in Belfast have three shows a day at the weekends."

Wilfie has been a regular at the John Hewitt pub in Donegall Street for a long time and he has built up a loyal following there. But most of his shows are cover gigs and Wilfie doesn't get as many opportunities as he would like to play his own songs.

He's lost count of the number of songs he has written and it was during a conversation with Gareth Dunlop that the seeds were sown for his first album, Miners Gold.

"I had over 40 songs to pick from for the album. Some of them went way back. And there were even some songs about the Troubles, but they didn't make the cut.

"I knew that with Gareth as my producer I was in good hands. And I am happy with the songs that we decided to put on the album which, I am glad to say, has received positive reviews."

Wilfie launched the record at a sold-out gig in the exotic surroundings of the Palm House in Belfast's Botanic Gardens.

"Even though there have been shows there before, some people are still surprised that musicians perform at the Palm House. But it's a brilliant space," says Wilfie. "The stage, the lighting and the sound were all fantastic."

The response to the first album has encouraged Wilfie to think about more releases.

"I've waited too long, far too long to bring out my debut album. I am looking forward to getting back into the studio to record something else," says Wilfie, whose musical tastes have mellowed from his younger days when Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix were his heroes.

"I'm now a massive fan of people like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. Their writing is the thing. It's remarkable."

Wilfie's gravelly voice invariably earns him comparisons with the late Joe Cocker. "People are always telling me that. Obviously I can't copy him. My voice is my voice. But I don't mind the Joe Cocker comments because I definitely take them as a compliment," says Wilfie, whose 27-year-old son Travis is a fast-rising singer with a band who go under the name Travis is a Tourist.

"Last year Travis did four tours of Europe and indeed he's done more in the last few years than I have done in my lifetime," says Wilfie, who adds that father and son usually only sing together in private at family parties.

"We have talked about doing something together, maybe writing songs or playing some of his music, you never know," says Wilfie, who has been to Nashville to play at prestigious venues like the Bluebird cafe, but confesses that he wasn't a huge admirer of the 'business end' of the music in the States.

Wilfie, who has been married to his childhood sweetheart Lynn for 37 years, has another very different string to his bow… classic cars.

"I love restoring old vehicles," he says. "I have been doing them up for ages now. There's a great satisfaction in taking a car like an old BMW or a Jaguar and getting them running again and making them gleaming.

"I can tackle just about everything except painting them. I could work at the old cars morning, noon and night."

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