Hugo Duncan: Taking stroll down memory lane is good for the soul
Like many other people, I am now at the stage in life when I enjoy reminiscing. Turning back the clock invariably triggers fond memories and this was very much the case when I met up with what I would describe as some of the "golden oldies" of the showband era at the Ceili House in Enniskillen on Monday night.
As usual, it was a case of standing room only among a sea of familiar faces. I was so glad that I had made the journey there, as others had travelled much greater distances than me to be present.
It was great to see people like Ronnie Griffiths, Mickey Brady, Sean McGrade, Donie Cassidy, Seamus McCusker, Susan McCann and Tom Gilmore there, among others.
Breege Stuart, wife of the late Gene, was among the assembly, as was Gene's brother, Raymond, of Sharpe Music fame.
With Johnny Gallagher and Francie Smith supplying the music, the occasion really went with a swing.
I was particularly glad to see Donie Cassidy, someone I have known for many years.
Just recently, Jim Tobin, a singer whose career Donie had successfully moulded, passed away and we shared memories of Jim's 12 years as lead singer with the Firehouse Showband.
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Seamus McCusker formerly managed Brian Coll and Kieran McGilligan, Ronnie Griffiths played in The Mighty Avons and Driftwood, Sean McGrade was a top-class manager, Mickey Brady was famous for his Fender Blue guitar. And let's not forget the very popular Fr Brian Darcy, who had a place of honour in keeping with his role of spiritual advisor to the entertainment fraternity for the past half-century. Indeed, the main reason we were assembled there was to join Fr Brian, whose guidance and support we all appreciate.
We reflected on those who have passed on, those who are currently ill and those who may have fallen on hard times.
But underpinning the occasion was a sense of unity and togetherness that I found uplifting.
We now accept that we live in a very materialistic society, yet for me at any rate, Monday night's get-together underlined that lasting friendships can not only prove a source of comfort, but persuade you to be thankful for the blessings you enjoy.
Times have changed... but love of music hasn't
I must say I am very impressed with the very imposing transport which bands use these days.
It is a very much a case of specially defined vehicles built to carry huge production sets. These vehicles are not only expensive to run, but can be difficult to drive.
I watched the other night as a band unloaded their gear prior to a concert and I thought for a minute that it was a full orchestra which had been booked.
My mind wandered back to the days when we travelled the length and breadth of Ireland in a Ford Transit twin-wheel red van with the name emblazoned on each side of it: Hugo Duncan and The Tallmen.
Inside the van there were seven musicians and a roadie plus all our playing equipment as well.
A partition separated the personnel from our gear in the back, but let's just say there was no leg-room at all, with pins-and-needles a common complaint and coughing and spluttering the order of the day, because three or four men could have been smoking cigarettes at the same time.
Thankfully, when The Tallmen climbed up the ladder a little, the band management allowed me and Pio McCann to travel together in my car, although a couple of the band would invariably join us.
It was all rather in contrast to what is taken for granted nowadays. Not only do most bands have a huge lorry for their gear, but the vast majority of band members travel under their own steam.
Unlike in the past, the setting-up of equipment is left to the roadies, with band members dandering in when it suits them.
When you consider the costs now involved in taking a laden lorry to a venue, as well perhaps as a smaller van, and take into account the costs incurred by band members in taking their own cars, it's a completely different world.
The overall costs involved in this operation would be more than any fee we ever got for a full night's playing.
But one thing about us was that we never short-changed the dancing public in terms of playing time.
That was one of the problems with being in love with the music business.
A new album and on the road... Galway Boy Mike has still got that magic
Mike Denver has, for some 15 years, been regarded as one of the leading names in Irish country music.
The Galway singer announced his arrival on the scene in the early Noughties and has since blossomed into one of our most popular artistes.
He will shortly undertake a short concert tour and it will be my pleasure to be part of his show.
Mike is regarded as an all-round entertainer, a singer who can handle country songs while at the same time feeling very much at home with other numbers.
Since he first took to the road, Mike has had a string of hits and has become renowned as much as a concert performer as he is a dancing attraction.
He inherited his great love of music from his mother, while his cousin, Sabrina Fallon, is also a very accomplished performer.
Only a few weeks ago, Sabrina was among my guests at our Radio Ulster outside broadcast at the Maid of the Mournes Festival in Warrenpoint.
Currently, Mike is dividing his time between playing at dances here, performing his concerts and undertaking Continental tours. Indeed, right now he is in Portugal, where hundreds of country music lovers from Ireland have congregated to hear Mike and his band perform nightly until Sunday.
Arranged in conjunction with Paul Claffey Tours, this annual event brings people of all age groups and backgrounds together. He may not have had time to catch his breath lately, but Mike, who is known as The Galway Boy, certainly has no complaints - in fact, he enjoys every minute he spends on the road.
"I have been lucky in that some of my records have been successful and this has certainly helped me to further my career in the dancing venues," points out Mike.
"Obviously, in more recent years, concerts have become particularly popular and I certainly enjoy performing at them."
I am very much looking forward to sharing the stage with Mike, whose versatility and professionalism have won him many admirers.
And his appetite for work is huge, it would seem.
"Yes, we always seem to be on the road when you think about it," Mike tells me. "But then this goes with the territory.
"I must say, we are fortunate in that with festivals, dances and concerts we are kept on our toes and then we have several trips each year to the Continent."
Next Friday, Mike will be one of four bands who will be featured at the Farmers' Bash at the SSE Arena in Belfast.
Along with Derek Ryan, Johnny Brady and Cliona Hagan, he will be entertaining thousands of followers at what is expected to be a spectacular feast of country music.
"We're looking forward to it, because this gives us an opportunity to meet up with many of our Ulster fans," says Mike.
"There is no doubt that the Farmers' Bash has become a major annual event in the country music calendar and I feel it will prove a major success."
On the following weekend (October 18-20), he will host his own Dancing Spectacular at the West County Hotel in Ennis.
Mike has just brought out a new album, The Working Man, on the Sharpe music label through which Mike and Raymond Stewart have built up a very good relationship.
They certainly appear to complement each other and, when you think about the title The Working Man, it's a very apt description of Mike's own life.
There are a number of well-known tracks on the album and Mike will certainly be performing these when he appears with his band in concert at the popular Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on Thursday, October 17.
This means, actually, that twice within a week, Mike will be appearing in the Belfast area.
I suspect that country music lovers will think that they are being spoiled rotten!
Trust Brian Coll to hit the right note
It was the legendary Brian Coll who, in his own inimitable way, captured the way life has moved on in the entertainment business.
I recall one occasion in particular at a concert in Tyrone when what you might call an in-depth discussion took place on what was then an ailing entertainment scene.
Those involved in the conversation, including myself, had their say and we all offered our own explanations.
But it was Brian who provided a real gem.
“It’s like this, boys,” declared Brian. “A few years ago, we were all using 200-watt sound systems to play to maybe 2,000 people in ballrooms and marquees.
“But do you know, nowadays, with sound systems having advanced that bit more, we’re using 2,000-watt set-ups to play to something like 200 people?
“That’s the long and the short of it!”