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High Kings adapt, mark milestone

The High Kings with George Murphy, left.

By Colleen Taylor

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since I pulled into the high-school parking lot in New Milford, Conn., blaring my recently-purchased High Kings album. (A fact for which my friends still tease me.) I’ve been a High Kings fan from the outset in 2008, anticipating each new album, each U.S. tour, each perfect harmony. I’ve watched and cheered as they moved from strength to strength, from solidifying their reputation with their second album, “Memory Lane,” in 2011, to achieving something truly innovative, even genius, in their most recent “Grace and Glory” (2017). Now, to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, the band has released “Decade”— a milestone album compiling their greatest hits and fan favorites. But as they explained to me a couple weeks ago in Boston, one decade down signifies big changes for the Kings.

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The biggest of those changes is the recent departure of band member Martin Furey. Earlier this autumn, the band announced via Facebook that Furey decided to conclude his time with the High Kings. When I met the remaining Kings that time in Boston, they had just parted ways with Furey and were exhausted from reworking their set list into a three-man sound. I expected raw wounds, but Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy and Darren Holden spoke about Martin’s retirement with amity and resolve. “We had 10 good years,” Holden said, and being on the road long-term was no longer feasible for Furey. Clancy, Holden and Dunphy, on the other hand, were—and are—itching for another 10 years. In fact, Furey’s departure came at a fitting milestone. It resembled another serious challenge the band faced back when they first formed in 2008. Shortly after their PBS debut, the four singers were forced to reorganize. Due to the recession and budget cuts, the High Kings lost their large-scale production team, forcing them to remodel themselves into a folk band that played as well as sang all their songs. As the whirlwind of 2008 proved, the High Kings are good adaptors. In fact, their second album “Memory Lane” sounds leagues better than their more theatrical debut.

Still, the idea of a High Kings decade seems strange to me. For one, it’s shocking to be reminded this band has only been around for ten years. Over the past few years, Clancy, Dunphy, Holden and Furey have become fixtures in the Irish music global market. They have played for several presidents, and, most recently, performed in Ireland’s 1916 Centenary. In terms of sound effect, the High Kings are a band of centuries in my mind, not a decade. When I listen to their albums, they seem to traverse the whole of the 20th century, reaching back in cultural memory to the 19th and 18th centuries. Their dedication to continuing the projects and passions of their fathers before them—the Clancy Brothers, Sean Dunphy, etc. —contributes to this longevity effect. The High Kings have picked up where their fathers left off—a momentum that continues to drive their music. In fact, Clancy, Dunphy and Holden told me their common goal going forward was to record songs in honor of their parents. For Darren, this was his hometown ballad, “Rose of Mooncoin,” for Brian, “Lonely Woods of Upton,” and Finbarr, “Castle of Dromore.”

The High Kings decade is also anachronistic because, paradoxically, it seems too long a time for a band as youthful as this one. What I love most about the High Kings is how they transform each old Irish ballad you’ve heard a million times, turning it into something new, fresh, and yet still authentically traditional. Each album shines with the bright, glossy finish of a debut. Each one is contemporary, energetic, and enduringly youthful. This was never more true than when they released “Grace and Glory” last year. It was as if the High Kings—pardon the cliché—had been reborn into a group with even greater youthful vision and vigor. Ironically, the more experienced this band becomes, the younger, the newer they sound. And yet, the younger sector of their fan population still surprises them: “It just sort of happened,” Clancy said, “all of a sudden lots of teenagers were telling us how much our music meant to them.” My teenage self back in 2008 can attest that HK fandom knows no age boundary, nor a national one. The Kings were also quick to reflect on the international response to their music as well, reflecting fondly on fans from Argentina, Japan, and of course, across the continental U.S.

“Decade” captures the High Kings paradox: their simultaneous youthful energy and long-practiced expertise in Irish folk music. The album includes everything from favorites like “Marie’s Wedding” and “The Rising of the Moon” to a couple new recordings, like “Four Green Fields,” what Clancy describes as “one of the original power ballads.” Most importantly though, this is an album for their fans. The band included “Irish Pub Song,” which began as something of a gimmick, on the album because so many fans requested it at shows.

As they discussed the songs they had played a million times, I found myself quietly wondering how they didn’t get sick of them. The answer to my unasked question came when they gushed praise for their fans. They discussed veterans, patients with cancer, fans with special needs—all of whom found solace in HK tunes. “There’s something spiritual in the music,” they agreed. On top of the perfect harmonies, the energetic performances, and the tight instrumentals, an unnamable spirituality drives the High Kings phenomenon. An hour after our conversation, when, during their show at the Sommerville Theatre, the three singers moved backstage, surrounded around a single microphone, and chorused “Red Is the Rose,” I saw that spirituality at work. Even the most rowdy and obnoxious attendees fell silent during the majesty of the ballad’s harmony and history. In that moment, I saw that’s how, that’s why they do it night after night, album after album. As Darren Holden simply, humbly said, “If the need is there, we’ll be there.”

The High Kings haven’t missed a step since I saw them in Boston a couple weeks ago. In that short interim, they’ve toured Canada, took part in the Sharon Shannon tribute on RTE (who will also be in Boston, at the Burren, on Nov. 19), and picked up a fourth musician to join them on tour, George Murphy. Like I said, good adaptors. For the High Kings, it’s a new decade, a new ensemble, but the same infrangible Irish folk.