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Hugo Duncan: If the suit fits... then I always make sure it's in my suitcase

By Hugo Duncan

How things have changed! In the not-too-distant past, getting all dressed up to attend a country dance at a local venue was regarded as a gala evening out by many people, whether married or single.

Indeed, it was the social highlight of the week for most folk, an opportunity to let their hair down, demonstrate their jiving ability and mingle with the crowd, or dance the night away with their partner, as the case may be.

It represented a social outing that was not particularly costly, provided a decent level of entertainment and usually incurred minimal travel.

Fast-forward to today and things have not so much changed as completely transformed.

Now, instead of settling for a couple of hours at the local hop, thousands - yes, thousands - of people are heading off to foreign parts on a regular basis to spend a week in exotic locations at which their favourite Irish artistes host a lavish programme of music and dancing that transports their followers into an entertainment heaven.

I have been extremely fortunate to have been invited along to perform at such events, hosted by the likes of Nathan Carter and Declan Nerney, and I can tell you it is quite an experience.

It is, perhaps, 10 years since I travelled to Spain to take part in a country music festival but, as is still the tradition, I was one of several performers who were fulfilling guest spots over the course of the week. Because I was only going to be in the hotel for a matter of hours and was on my own, I always had my bag in my hand.

This certainly did not go unnoticed by the people on the trip, with one wag remarking: "What have you got there, Hugo? The Crown Jewels?"

"No, it's something more important," I replied. "It's a change of shirt. Where do you think I'm going to get one to fit me if I lose my bag?"

Which reminds me of the time I went to Scotland to perform at a pre-Christmas country show.

Imagine my horror, when I looked inside my suit cover, only to discover that my suit had been taken to the dry cleaners.

I went round a couple of shops, but because of my portly size then, I was unable to purchase anything suitable. In desperation, I happened to look into a fancy dress shop window, saw a Santa Claus outfit and asked the owner if I could borrow it. I got back to the hotel, managed to get into the suit and popped down to the show. The audience thought I was the bee's knees.

Anyway, from small acorns mighty oaks grow, and when these country music continental safaris began, they might have embraced a well-known band and perhaps one or two guests.

Now, it is not unusual to see upwards on a dozen acts performing over the course of a week, with some featuring on a couple of nights and then making way for others. It all adds up to quite a package of entertainment, I can tell you.

When Declan Nerney launched his now-famous annual Hooley in the Sun over a decade ago, he did so more in hope than expectation, but now such is the enthusiasm on the part of music-lovers to sample the experience that he has on offer, he actually started promoting this year's trip within a week of returning home from the 2018 safari at the end of October.

"When I started the Hooley, I never thought it would reach the heights that it has achieved," says Declan. "It just simply gets better and better.

"We have people who come with us every year and I think that this is the best testament to what we can offer."

Having been on the Hooley bill on several occasions, I can vouch for the enjoyment that Declan's week on the continent can provide. "We try to make it like a home from home for those who go with us, except for two things - there is always plenty of sunshine and the music never ends," he explains.

Jimmy Buckley, Robert Mizzell, Michael English and Patrick Feeney are other singers who lay on continental treats which allow their followers to swap our uncertain climate for virtually guaranteed sunshine.

Robert Mizzell charts a rather different course to the others in that he leads a party of his fans to his native United States every year in October.

A native of Louisiana, Robert is your authentic US country star and he loves showing his homeland to those who go on his trips. "It's always great to go back to the States, if only for a little while," he says. "I've been in Ireland for over 20 years and I'm married and settled here, but I like to get back to the US, if only for a little while. It's no harm not to forget your roots."

But Robert does not forget fans' yearning for the sun. In May, he and his band, The Country Kings, will host a week-long trip to Santa Susanna on the Costa Brava, where they will be joined by Jimmy Buckley, Patrick Feeney, Olivia Douglas, Barry Kirwan, Gary Gamble, Gerry Guthrie and Stuart Moyle, among others.

I was speaking to someone who runs country dances in the border area last Friday and I asked him how things were going at the moment.

"It's not too bad," he told me. "But they would be better if it didn't cost me a fortune to ring bands that I'm looking to book.

"Every time I ring I get the continental tone and I can just see my bill going through the roof. These bands and their managers seem to be always in some other part of the globe than Ireland."

If I had been told even a couple of years ago that the annual exodus to the Continent would zoom into the thousands, I never would have believed it.

But today it seems that the world is an entertainer's oyster - something that is likely to remain the case for several years to come.

Three Amigos leading from the front in cracking concert renaissance

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The Three Amigos
 

Not so long ago, weekly dances were the dominant form of entertainment in this country. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights were set aside to twist, jive and waltz to bands big and small the length and breadth of the country.

That's not quite the case any longer, of course. Dancing may have reigned supreme, but right now concerts featuring our top country bands are very much par for the course.

For the next two months at least, artists such as The Three Amigos, Mike Denver, Michael English, Derek Ryan and Declan Nerney will perform at a series of concerts that will provide a feast of country music for all age groups.

It's easy to understand the growing popularity of concerts when it is considered that they finish early, they are staged in comfortable - indeed, luxurious - theatres for the most part and they provide an invaluable outlet for bands to sell merchandise, ranging from keyrings to T-shirts.

The Three Amigos (Jimmy Buckley, Robert Mizzell and Patrick Feeney) played to an almost sold-out Waterfront Hall last Saturday night - and that takes some doing on the first weekend in January - while Mike Denver continues to set box office records on his current tour.

I must admit that I admire the manner in which concerts are slickly marketed, well-produced and quite often highlight the hitherto untapped versatility of different artists.

While Jimmy Buckley is renowned as a top-class singer, it's only through the medium of concerts that his talents as a comedian come into focus, while Patrick Feeney invariably proves that he can handle big ballads in the same way that he does country numbers.

Indeed, it's in the homely atmosphere of theatres that acts can highlight their talent and captivate audiences with their ability to unveil numbers that they might not normally perform at dances.

Conal keeps things fresh

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Conal Gallen
 

He may be regarded as a top-class comedian, but Conal Gallen can certainly put over a country song.

The Ballybofey funny man is currently in the throes of a concert tour, and only last weekend the 'house full' sign went up at the Millbrook Lodge Hotel in Ballynahinch when he appeared there.

When he first burst on to the entertainment scene several years ago, Conal was seen as a breath of fresh air, yet here we are further down the line and he is still regarded as being as fresh as tomorrow's milk.

That's because he has continually updated his repertoire, throwing in topical quips and poking fun at a range of diverse subjects.

It's when it comes to singing that Conal has shown himself to be both composer and performer.

He wrote his huge hit Horse It Into You Cynthia himself and has since had success with numbers such as Do Your Ears Hang Low and Rolling In The Hay.

Only recently, he brought out a very impressive album, Conal Gallen's Songbook, which includes a superb version of And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

In tandem with his son, Rory, who is also his manager, the creative Conal has also written a couple of stage plays, which underlines his versatility.

He continually raises the bar for himself, and I know that several of our top country singers are keeping a weather eye on him in case he comes up with a monster hit.

Anything is possible with Conal, who never ceases to strike a rapport with his audiences and whose humour transcends the generation gap.

I receive numerous requests to play his songs on my radio show, and I am quite sure that such requests come from those who like to bring a little laughter into their lives - and fair play to them for that.

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