Manchester 2010

Back To The Roots

Newcastle upon Tyne, 19th March 2010    

A folk club somewhere in England, early 1960. A 19-year-old, red-haired Irish lad, still in search of his place in the world in general and his musical direction in particular, decides to drop in out of curiosity one night. He has already developed in his young life a deep interest in music, but up to now it has been the big band sound and most recently jazz music that has absorbed him. But as our Irish teenager enters the venue this night, the first music he hears, sung in harmony and with such obvious enthusiasm by the mostly English visitors, is the chorus of Brendan Behan's "The Auld Triangle". He is fascinated, immensely impressed and deeply moved by what he sees and hears, at this moment and in the course of the evening. From this night on his musical interest, indeed his raison d'ętre, is redefined. From this night on he lives and breathes folk music. What follows is history – a couple of years and places later he returns to Ireland to become in his short but turbulent life one of the greatest and most admired and loved musicians the folk scene world has ever known.   

That folk club was in Newcastle, the "Folk Song and Ballad", in the Barras Bridge Hotel, because of its rather rough interior affectionately known by the locals as "The Sink". It opened its doors for the first time in 1958 after two young local musicians, Johnny Handle and Louis Killen, were encouraged to start a once-a-week folk song evening. They had met while the former was doing skiffle and blues interval spots in the nearby "New Orleans Jazz Club" and, to the increasing enthusiasm of the visitors, had begun to perform there regularly as a duo. These were the very beginnings of the folk scene in Newcastle, and only a few months later the two talented musicians transferred their weekly folk night from the jazz club venue to that small upstairs room in "The Sink" which was to be the home of the "Folk Song and Ballad" for its first years. Guest performers were engaged, but also an increasing number of local singers and musicians appeared regularly. It was a special Irish night that evening in early 1960, with guest musicians piccolo player John Doonan and friends. Witnesses recall that Luke Kelly visited the club with John Reavey, who had become one of the resident singers there and with whom Luke later left Newcastle to seek his fortune in Birmingham. Johnny Handle remembers: "At that time the troubles in Ireland had not escalated and there were quite a few rebel songs sung, in rather a jolly way."  It is said that at the close of the evening Luke alone rose to his feet as the Irish National Anthem was played. 

City redevelopment projects made it necessary a few years later to look for new premises for the "Folk Song and Ballad". "The Sink" was to be demolished to make way for the new Civic Centre, and after a short stay in rooms in Pilgrim Street the club found its final home in 1962 in the Bridge Hotel, opposite the Castle Keep and only a stone's throw away from the High Level Bridge which spans the River Tyne. Its name was altered several years later to simply "Bridge Folk Club", and in the meantime it prizes itself on being one of the oldest existing folk clubs in England. Not only for the two founder members has it been a career stepping stone, it was here of course that Johnny Handle's own great "High Level Ranters" came to birth in the late 60's, and over the years many other familiar names in the folk world have passed through its doors. One who returned in the early days of the club was Luke Kelly. Johnny Handle recalls meeting him "in the bar of the Bridge" in the late 60's, when Luke made a brief visit to Tyneside. "We played a few tunes together and had a crack about the folk scene being on the up and up."  

In 2008 the "Bridge Folk Club" celebrated its 50th anniversary with a big birthday party which was filmed and recorded live. Among the musicians who appeared that evening to commemorate five decades of folk music in Newcastle were of course its two founder members. But there were also many other guest artists and visitors and friends present who had in one way or another been connected to the folk club since its early days. I venture to say that, sadly, at least one person was missing that night. 

A leap in time ... March 2010, The Dubliners UK Tour ... A Time To Remember. Certainly no coincidence that one station of this memorable tour should be in Newcastle, that city that had made such a vital and lasting impression on Luke Kelly and had marked a turning point in his life almost exactly 50 years before. In his introduction to their commemoration of Luke, John Sheahan spoke about this association to Newcastle, recalling that Luke had lived there for a while in the 60's. Barney elaborated on this later in the evening, explaining that Luke had worked and sung in Newcastle's hotels and bars, and alluding to his connection to "The Ranters" and "The Bridge". And he put it in a nutshell as he expressed Luke's relationship to the City of Newcastle: "This was Luke's place!"   

With the exception of these short retrospections of a time before The Dubliners, the concert in Newcastle followed the familiar pattern of other A Time To Remember gigs – songs and tunes out of 48 years of Dubliners' repertoire (John: "only 2 to the 50 and no plans to stop yet!") complemented on screen by pictures mostly from the early days, and spiced with poetry, tape recordings and video clips to commemorate those who had passed away. Several years have elapsed since The Dubliners' last appearance in Tyneside, the City Hall was packed, and the 2000 enthusiastic fans accompanied the five on stage from the opening reels to the final encore with clapping, singing and foot stamping. And although it was my second A Time To Remember it was nevertheless for two reasons a new and exciting experience. One factor was indeed this same Newcastle audience – it was fascinating to be sitting again in the midst of native English speakers, who not only enjoyed immensely old favourites like Sean's "Rocky Road To Dublin" and "Black Velvet Band", Patsy's "All For Me Grog" and "Dirty Old Town" and manifested great pleasure in accompanying the two videos of the evening, "Maids When You're Young" and "McAlpine's Fusiliers", but were also undoubtedly at an advantage when it came to joining in on the chorus of less familiar songs in the Time To Remember set list. And furthermore were inherently capable of appreciating to the full the humorous anecdotes related during the evening and the subtleties of John Sheahan's wonderful poetry!     

But first and foremost, my having been a witness in Wadern of an extraordinary Time To Remember concert without John Sheahan, it was a special pleasure to see and hear him again, to listen to his fiddle and tin whistle, and to watch him as he recited, quite obviously deeply moved, his tribute poems "Luke's Gravestone", "Remembering Ciaran Bourke" and "Ronnie's Heaven". It was also John who was responsible for one of my musical highlights of the evening, "St.Patrick's Cathedral", undoubtedly one of my long-time favourites from his original compositions. I found it especially emotive to watch him, accompanied by "his younger friend Eamonn", playing it quasi in front of the magnificent building that had inspired him. 

Sean and Patsy were in excellent singing form in Newcastle and treated us in the course of the concert to a wide variety of great songs. I must admit that secretly I had been hoping to hear Sean with some speciality from the North-East's musical heritage, and had already imagined him makíng a fantastic job of – what else? – "Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinny"! But apart from the fact that it would have probably been somewhat out of place in the theme of the evening, I suppose it is also a pretty unrealistic request to the visitors of any Dubliners' gig, whether in Newcastle or elsewhere! Needless to say, there were certainly no feet still in the City Hall as Sean told us the tale of "Kelly The Boy From Killane" or later sang the praises of "The Rare Ould Mountain Dew"!  

Patsy, never failing to confess his admiration for his "idol" Luke Kelly, gave us a wonderful rendition of "The Nightingale", a song that I not only associate with the Dubliners' first album but which also inevitably conjures up memories of my own folk club days of long ago. Another integral part of the Time To Remember set list is Patsy's lamentation of the changes in a beloved town – in Wadern he sang of Phil Coulter's much-loved Derry, in Newcastle it was time again to remember his own Dublin City in the "Rare Auld Times".   

Barney McKenna has played and sung himself into the hearts of so many people in so many corners of the world, but, judging by the vehemence of his reception in the City Hall, Tyneside is a stronghold of his fans! Nevertheless, Barney always being good for a surprise, his first song was not "Three Score And Ten" which because of Newcastle's proximity to the North Sea one might have expected; instead he heaved and hauled us away to "South Australia", a sea trip which was visibly and audibly enjoyed by all! But yet another surprise awaited the visitors in Newcastle. Shortly before the interval John, Sean and Patsy disappeared to put the kettle on, (although it remained a secret why they needed hot water at all for Newcastle's national beverage which Patsy was later so full of praise of!) leaving Barney and Eamonn to entertain us with what was apparently a special bonbon for all visitors of the UK tour – Barney laid aside his beloved banjo for a while and delighted the audience with a couple of tunes on the melodeon! True to the nickname John has often given him, "Romeo" McKenna played for us first a few bars of "True Love", made immortal by Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby in "High Society", following on with the lively Irish hornpipe "Harvest Home". The kettle hadn't come to the boil yet, so there was still enough time for Eamonn's much-loved "Maid Behind The Bar" and another special "McKenna treat". It was a traditional Irish tune, and he described it as "a song about emigration", but when Barney's banjo plays "The Old House" there are no lyrics necessary to convey this poignant feeling of sadness and longing for by-gone days and places.

Newcastle upon Tyne – an evening full of highlights and an audience full of appreciation for them. But for me there was one song that stood out above all others. A song I have heard so often, both live and recorded, and which never fails to fascinate me, but in Newcastle seemed to gain new and special significance. And as The Dubliners raised the roof of the City Hall with "The Auld Triangle", I was taken back in time to that folk club 50 years ago, just around the corner from where I was sitting now, and I saw in my thoughts that red-haired Irish lad as he entered those rooms and, hearing the very same song that I was hearing now, lost his heart to folk music.   

Luke Kelly A Memoir. Des Geraghty 1994
Special thanks to Johnny Handle and the present organiser of the Bridge Folk Club, Dave Minikin, for their very kind support.

Article by Enid
Concert photographs (c) Helmut except: Photograph #4 (c) Polly
Backstage shot of Polly with her husband and Sean (c) Polly
Backstage shot of Enid and Patsy (c) Helmut  

Polly & her husband with Sean

Enid & Patsy

See even more pictures in our 2010 gallery!

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