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Hugo Duncan: Reunion puts Mainliners back on the map as they rekindle dancing heyday

John Glenn
John Glenn

By Hugo Duncan

When John Glenn linked up with The Mainliners again, following the death of Big Tom last year, it was initially thought that it might only be for a short tour.

But such has been the band's popularity and the demand to recreate the atmosphere that prevailed in the Sixties and Seventies, when they were at their peak, that not only are the band continuing to fulfil bookings in all parts of the country, but they have just released a new record, which is creating a huge stir.

Roses in the Snow is a punchy, upbeat song, which is given John Glenn's inimitable treatment and the upshot is that the band suddenly find themselves carried along on a renewed wave of popularity.

For John Glenn, in particular, the reaction to Roses in the Snow has come as a very welcome surprise.

"It's the first song I have released with the band since I was with them 40 years ago and, do you know, it seems to recreate the spirit of the showband boom," reflects Crossmaglen man John.

"We decided to record Roses in the Snow, because we all thought it would prove to be a good dancing number and that's exactly how things have turned out."

Rather than having session musicians performing on the record, the band decided instead to put their own stamp on the number by playing their own instruments. "We wanted to capture that magical Mainliners sound and I am delighted with the whole production," adds John.

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"Things could not have not have turned out better.

"We all might be getting on in years, but the important thing is that none of us have lost our love of music, or our desire to be on the road again as a band."

John, of course, replaced Big Tom temporarily in the Seventies, when the latter left to front The Travellers, but John himself subsequently moved on to become lead vocalist with The Wranglers.

In April 2016, I visited Big Tom and his wife, Rose, at their home outside Castleblayney to interview him for my Radio Ulster programme. The warmth of the welcome confirmed my long-held belief that Big Tom was very special indeed.

The Mainliners may now be the senior statesmen of the Irish entertainment scene, but they show what can only be described as a youthful enthusiasm for what they are doing.

I mentioned this in conversation with band leader Henry McMahon and, quick as a flash, he came back to me: "We may be old men, but we're young at heart. Sure, we love being on the road again. Someone remarked to us the other night that we're very much on song and I thought that was highly appropriate."

Already, John Glenn and The Mainliners have been accorded enthusiastic receptions in many of Ulster's leading dancing venues, such as The Ryandale, Moy; the Tullyglass House Hotel, Ballymena; the Mourne Country Hotel, Newry and the Silverbirch Hotel, Omagh.

Distance, it seems, is no object for these venerable troubadours when it comes to fulfilling dance dates.

"We'll play on Mars, but only if the money is right," laughs Henry McMahon.

It is, indeed, encouraging to see a band of veterans thoroughly enjoying what they do and as focused as ever in catering for dancers' needs.

"While concerts, country music weekends and big outdoor events are very much in vogue nowadays, compared to what things were like years ago, there's nothing to beat a good atmosphere," says John. "And it's still the ideal environment in which boy can meet girl.

"Mind you, the boy might be about 72 and the girl on the wrong side of 60, but, take it from me, no one is ever asked to produce a birth certificate."

I have always liked both the music and the attitude of The Mainliners.

They always stayed grounded, knew precisely how to present a good dancing programme and remained very much in touch with their followers.

I never thought that, over 50 years after playing their first date, I would be spinning a new record from the band on my show in 2019.

When the record came to me, I got in touch with the band to compliment them on the quality of Roses in the Snow and they were suitably chuffed.

But I couldn't resist throwing in a gentle dig when I inquired: "Tell me boys, when is your testimonial match taking place, because I want to be sure and be there?"

I’d a wee problem

I never knew that answering an urgent call of nature could produce such a level of embarrassment as that which I experienced in the new Farmers’ Hall in Rathfriland last Thursday night. I had journeyed there from Belfast and, having been held up in heavy traffic, I needed to go to the toilet before going on stage in a special concert there.

Having abandoned, rather than parked, the car, I burst in through the front doors, asked three performers standing in the hallway where the toilets were and followed their directions at breakneck speed (5mph by my standards). While in the process of doing what I had to do, I became aware of female voices in the vicinity and slowly, indeed ever so carefully, I eased the door of my cubicle. I could hear at least three females engaged in conversation and a cold sweat broke out on my brow. Water taps were turned on, hand-towels were pulled from machines and finally this was followed by the closing of a door.

I shot out of the cubicle, got back into the hallway and told the folk who were still standing there I had been given the wrong directions. But one responded: “Hugo, we knew your need was great, but we didn’t want to detain you. After all, you can’t hold what you haven’t got in your hand!” I eventually made it into the men’s toilets — but only to wash my hands.

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