The renowned Irish folk band celebrated over a decade of storytelling through song with a tour that reached the Windy City.
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
The Mayfair Theatre buzzed with the chatter of people discussing their travels and connections to the Irish folk world as they sipped beer and found their way to their beige seats. On Friday, September 6, the High Kings had come to Chicago on its Decade Tour.
At 7:30 p.m., St. Stephen’s Green from Southside Chicago opened, the lead singer’s auburn hair befitting the Irish folk songs she covered. Chicago has a robust Irish-American scene such that there is even a song dedicated specifically to Southside Irish in the Windy City, which the cover band played despite being in the Irish American Heritage Center on the Northside.
After a 30 minute set and a 15 minute intermission, the candle-lit glass chandeliers dimmed, and the long-awaited High Kings walked down the right hand side and up on stage. Immediately the trio jumped into “Rocky Road to Dublin,” introducing its tight harmonies and instrumental proficiency from the very first line. This was the moment the audience had been waiting for.
“We came to have a party tonight!” the band announced, continuing into the next tune with ease. The crowd sang along from the seats.
Many fans had seen the High Kings before, some in the same theater five years back, and some were planning to return on Sunday before the group returned to Ireland. For others, it was their first time hearing the Irish folk band in concert, and the band’s live performance leveled with its recordings.
Although the lack of a fourth voice was felt since Martin Furey retired from the band back in 2017, two years after his departure and almost twelve years into the game, the High Kings had figured out how to make the new dynamic work. The trio demonstrated its incredible musical abilities through ballads, rebellion songs, and hearty jigs.
The show was sold out, and it’s no wonder why.
Darren Holden played keys, electric guitar, mandolin, and primarily the accordion, which transformed acoustic songs into swelling tunes. His full voice went well with the sweet vocals of Brian Dunphy, who played acoustic guitar and whose hands appeared to dance on the bodhrán drum by his chest. Brian brought the humor, and Finbarr Clancy, singing from center stage, kept the band true to its heart. He also played acoustic guitar and banjo.
“It’s a great atmosphere in this room. Might need a fur coat in a minute though,” Brian joked in reference to the open windows letting the cool, early autumn breeze into an otherwise stuffy building. He said he would just play harder to warm himself up, and that he did.
While the band was incredible at incorporating the crowd, who had all the lyrics memorized, a few songs stood out from the rest. The band practically let the audience lead “Fields of Athenry,” Brian waiting to croon over Darren’s keys until they had finished the first verse and chorus entirely.
The group also played “The Town I Loved So Well” so beautifully that it received a standing ovation. The ballad was soft and slow and touching. Then, the instant the crowd resumed sitting, the High Kings jumped into the fast-paced and humorous tale of “Finnegan’s Wake.” The band had no problem moving from somber to upbeat, carrying the audience’s emotions safely through each folk song.
The High Kings also encouraged dancing. “If you wanna dance, get up and shake your booties,” Brian called, drawing out the last word. While most people continued watching and singing from their seats, a handful of young people jumped around on the left and another group formed in the back to drink and dance.
On stage, the band performed songs including “Hand Me Down My Bible,” ”All Around the World,” “Will Ye Go Lassie Go,” “Rising of the Moon,” and “Whiskey in the Jar.”
Between stomping jigs, a young man cried out, “Finbarr, you’re sexy!” Finbarr raised his eyebrows and looked thoughtful for a moment, commenting that it was a first. Brian teased he’d just never heard it. Finbarr, somewhat unsure how to take the affair, admitted he had shaved his head and grown a beard but then escaped into the next song.
The band’s banter livened up the evening, and Brian particularly excelled at evoking chuckles throughout the night. The band played so well and passionately that Brian even broke a guitar string — twice! Still, he remained composed and professional, prioritizing the music above all else.
The High King’s harmonies and transitions were tight, its instrumentation perfected over the course of eleven-plus years together. The band knew how to hit the audience’s heart strings, whether by Finbarr playing harmonics on his guitar, the band singing the incredible and true story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett, or by creating a space where the crowd could share together.
At 10 p.m., the High Kings ended with “The Parting Glass,” an almost necessary move. The men played an acoustic rendition, just finger picking the strings and layering their voices as they bid the crowd farewell.
Though the show was over, the night was not. The band moved to sit at the end of the merchandise table to take photos with fans. The bar and building remained open for a while as the crowd continued to engage with one another and wander throughout the building. The High Kings concert served as an evening of friendliness, storytelling, and good old fun.
The band will be touring the Midwest and East Coast this September and then playing for its home country of Ireland for several months. They will visit Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center again on February 22 and 23 in the ballroom.