As more people are finding my website, and reading about my music; I realise I have given very little space to my ‘live’ shows – how it began; and what I do most weekends… playing around the country as a solo entertainer.
I don’t gig a quarter of what I used to any more. Where I used to be on the road 4 or 5 nights a week with various bands; I’m now happy with a handful of bookings a month in the places I want to play.
Any of the long-standing (or ‘old school’) musicians will tell you that ‘life on the road’ certainly isn’t what it used to be – what was once a difficult enough job (to get right) now brings new challenges in order to scrape together some form of existence – if you’re lucky.
My gigging life began around 1987 when I provided 5 hours of music for a wedding. Looking back, it was far from ideal – I’d hired out a speaker from a local music shop and brought my home keyboard to the venue, where I played everything I’d learnt by ear from the charts to the family’s record collection at the time.
It may not have been perfect – I know it wasn’t; but it certainly gave me a taste for something which I’d never felt before. I was just coming 16; 29 years later… I still get that feeling at some point when I’m on stage.
It was while I was doing keyboards in a 4-piece rock band that a certain legend in my home-town heard about me. His son Paul was the drummer in the band I was with, and his dad had just split from his guitarist and was looking for a backing musician. That man was Wilfie Higginson – also known as Mad Wilfy!
We met up, had a few rehearsals, got a set-list together (14 songs in total), and hit the road.
It’s fair to say that ‘Wilf and Keynotes’ as we were called were pretty popular. Wilf already had quite a reputation as a showman, and with his new keyboard player, we were out every night of the week with perhaps up to 5 shows over a Saturday and Sunday.
When I say the circuit isn’t what it used to be – this is exactly what I mean!
Keynotes continued until 1996 when Wilf and myself decided to call it a day and go our separate ways. The circuit had starting changing; I’d started singing too and wanted to travel further afield and try new things – it was sad but as Wilfy put it… I was still young and there was much left to do.
There will always be some element of what I’ve done to date – either as a songwriter or entertainer, which has stemmed from those days in Keynotes.
Wilfy passed on a few years ago, but it meant a lot to me that his son Paul told me that he had heard some of my songs on radio, and that he was glad I had stuck at it. So am I.
After Keynotes I continued with a few 2-piece outfits – some were enjoyable… some not as much.
Travelling became quite an issue as I started getting cross-border work, often not getting home until 5 or 6am in the morning. There were many times when my singer and myself could be found sitting in a cafe in Belfast having breakfast while people made their way to work. I remember us joking about how miserable they looked, and could we be arsed with having a ‘proper’ job.
What we did was one of the most unsociable jobs in the world – believe it or not, it could also be one of the loneliest; not to mention one which brought many a sacrifice in one way or another… but would we have changed a thing – no.
A huge turning point came for me in 2002 when I decided to move to England.
Originally I had planned to go for a 2-week break as I hadn’t taken any real time off in quite a few years. To cut a very long story short – I went for 2 weeks and came home 4 years later!
Being an entertainer in England taught me the things that Keynotes couldn’t – or maybe I just wasn’t ready to learn them at that stage.
The bars were different. The people were different. The standard of entertainment was phenomenal. Life was very very different, and I loved it.
In the first 3 weeks alone I had set up 12 bars to provide entertainment to. As I played one bar, two would get in contact a few days later as the news spread of the ‘Irish singer’ who had arrived in Norwich. I didn’t use any social media or internet back then – it was all word-of-mouth.
Saying ‘the people were different’ is maybe the wrong choice of words to use – rather, there was an intensity as to how people listened when I was singing. Every song mattered to someone, and everyone came to appreciate who was on stage.
I remember being at a jam session and singing a Rod Stewart ballad with 2 well-known guitarists (in the recording world anyway), coming back to my seat and seeing a very emotional woman saying how lovely it was. It was just a nice moment.
After what could be described as a roller-coaster ride, there came the point when I decided to leave England, in what was without a doubt, one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make.
During my last week in England, I rang close to 70 bars and social clubs that I’d managed to ‘win over’ to tell them I had decided to return home. One of my favourite bars held a leaving party for me – so many friends to say ‘goodbye’ to – and I hate goodbyes.
By 07.30am the following morning, I was gone, with everything I owned in the back of a Vectra Estate – destination… Scotland, Ferry, home.
Back in Northern Ireland… things had changed in a big way; and not necessarily for the better.
People move on; new friend circles are formed, and life goes on.
I was back onto the circuit I knew so well, but it wasn’t going to be an easy transition.
Everywhere I seemed to look, karaoke bands seemed to have popped up, the enthusiasm that had once been there 4 or 5 years years ago appeared to have dwindled away and been replaced by singers and bands who were just going through the motions; singing to a handful of swaying bar regulars who hurled abuse or thought they could ‘do it’ better. This really wasn’t what I was about (or what I’d been used to over the past few years)….. but needs must – for the moment.
As I remember, the first few years back home were some of the hardest I had ever done on ‘any’ circuit. I’d got a booking agent who had a strange collection of bars and clubs… think Star Wars meets The Boys From The Black Stuff and you get the general idea.
It may have taken some time, but gradually those better bars came along; reputation climbs and with it, the enjoyment. Big bars, little bars, events & functions… I was back doing them all.
Today, almost 30 years after that first wedding – I still enjoy what I do
I’m lucky enough to play in some great venues; meet some highly entertaining people along the way; and generally try and give the people what they’re after.
I’ve sung as far away as Bahrain and Sri-Lanka; played support to some amazing bands, recorded and produced my own material, and even made it onto the radio and telly.
Yeah it’s been quite a journey… but would I change it? Probably not.
More information on my live shows HERE.