The Crooked Rose, released in 1992, came on the heels of a major change in the history of Stocktons Wing. Throughout the 1980's 'The Wing', as they were often known had been performing as a Trad/rock outfit with their traditional instrumentation being backed by drums, bass, Keyboards and electric guitar. In 1990 with the departure of founder member Kieran Hanrahan, the group decided that it was time for a change in direction and concentrated their efforts on a more acoustic sound, which was more in keeping with the original sound of Stockton's Wing.
With six Mike Hanrahan songs on the album the vocal content is greater than on any previous Stockton's Wing album which proved to be a major part of the album's success. However the remaining six sets of tunes highlight the excitement, drive and individual virtuosity which has been the hallmark of Stockton's Wing since their inception back in 1977.
Stockton's Wing fly back to their roots
After 15 years together Stockton's Wing have decided to drop their calling card of rocked-up ceili music in favour of a purer, traditional form of Irish music. It's something of a new beginning for the Ennis band who achieved country acclaim in the 80's with hits such as 'Walk Away' and 'Beautiful Affair'.
But the bubble eventually burst, and as their popularity declined, so too did the band's interest in the music they were performing. "The music was taking second place to the gig and the drink, the crack as it's called" explains singer Mike Hanrahan. "We just got tired of it. The whole Celtic rock thing ran its course. It was very tiring, we were doing nothing but late night gigs where we were just background music for drinking. We felt a bit more serious about our music than that."
So they dropped the bass, drums and electric guitars and decided to return to their roots. Now Stockton's Wing feel rejuvenated, and hope to break into the same listening ( as opposed to dancing and drinking) circuit as Mary Black and Christy Moore. It is some 18 months since they toured Ireland, in that time concentrating mainly on work abroad.
In the UK, they have already abandoned the rock club circuit in favour of the theatres. "Okay, you fall back a bit on the first tour, but from then on, you build up. The reaction in Britain so far to the new band has been phenomenal. I feel that its been a great release for the band to get away from the Celtic Rock, the whole 'Keep her goin Patsy' thing."
They're also managing themselves and feel for the first time ever that they have control over their lives. "It's such a pleasure," says mike, "but it's hard work. You're talking directly to people all the time. There's no middle man. We listened to managers for years...and in the end we gave the electric thing a year too long."
He feels that musicianship and management skills should not automatically be seen as totally different areas. "The notion that musicians are musicians and their only place is on a stage is stupid. Some people are born with organisational qualities. We knew where we wanted to go musically and we decided to take control of the situation. We took a chance, but learned quickly."
However it wasn't all plain sailing, and they came close to breaking up at one point. "It was touch and go," says Mike, "you get frustrated with the thing and you start to wonder, 'Jaysus, what's it all about?' We did put a lot of energy into it and I know we played great music for years. But we didn't get the lucky breaks. I don't know whether it was bad planning on our part, or management, or whatever. But whatever happened over the years, you can blame managers and record companies, but the buck has to stop with the band for bad decision."
In 1990, Mike's banjo-playing brother Kieran who co-founded the band, quit, apparently tired of the road. Mike himself confesses to occasionally tiring of the travelling and performing, "But what else can I do?" he asks. "It's in me, and I do like the gig. In fact, I like them even better this year, we're like young fella again now."
Stockton's Wing first got together in 1977, with Mike joining the lineup some two years later. Prior to that he had been playing and singing in a country band called Tumbleweed with fellow Ennis native Maura O'Connell. Around the same time as he was invited to join the Wing, she was made an offer by De Dannan. Both accepted. Maura subsequently relocated to Nashville, while Mike and the rest of the band have been based in Dublin for some years.
He looks at the current return to their roots as a new beginning for the band. The diddley-aye crack has been displaced, with the band now tackling thornier subjects such as drug addiction and alcohol abuse. The new album also features a song in the ecological vein. "I'm actually environment-friendly," smiles Mike, who in the 1970's was involved in the Anti-nuclear lobby.
He recalls some flamboyant managers they have had down through the years. "Some of them thought that they were going to turn us into the next Wet Wet Wet or something. Then we met Oliver Barry, who actually brought us back to earth and taught us an awful lot about the business. His was the most professional office we ever worked with."
There have been several highlights in the band's career, but none better than when we joined Sammy Davis Jnr. on stage at the 'Ultimate Event' concert in Lansdowne Road a few years ago.
"We're quiet boring in that we actually do get on well together," admits Mike, "we have a good time. We're mature enough now to get on with things. What I'd love to do now is make a few bob. Yeah, we did make money down through the years, but we were young."
"Sure, didn't I meet you many's the night down in Leeson Street?"
The Sunday Press, April 26th 1992
Stockton's Wing At The Barbican
Stockton's Wing took the audience by storm at the Barbican last Wednesday night. Apart from the short break at half-time there were two hours of first-class entertainment from one of Ireland's best traditional folk groups. The Barbican hall, which has played host to some of the world's leading classical musicians, did not over-awe the boys of Stockton's Wing.
These five hugely talented musicians simply got on with the job of making music, as if they were playing in a pub in Kilburn or Kilkee. And there was a minimum of small talk and blather and wise cracks, at which musicians can be just plain boring. They played, and, what's more they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Maurice Lennon of Leitrim played the fiddle, crouching over it, moving with bent knee and bent back around the stage holding each member of the group in turn with his elfin eyes, encouraging them to play better. He played so whole-heartedly himself that smoke actually rose from the strings. How they did not snap is the unresolved mystery of the evening.
Mike Hanrahan, guitar and vocalist, put in a few soft-spoken words here and there to introduce the numbers and to throw in the odd plug for their latest album 'The Crooked Rose'. If it's anything as good as what they played in the Barbican, there will be brisk sales and it will surely top the charts.
Mike Hanrahan has the kind of voice you don't get tired listening to. He never shouts and when he sings songs like 'Take me home Lonesome Roads' he plucks at the heart strings of the Irish Exiles, whether they are in London, Sydney or New York.
Another Beautiful song that many a man might identify with is 'Angel' ('She sees the child in me and won't abandon me...') 'When you smiled' is a song that will please everyone that cares for the environment. The 'You' in the song is mother earth, threatened by pollution and the weakening ozone layer. "When you smiled it must have been heaven...from the steppes to the streets of Washington"
But the sweetest sound of Stockton's Wing comes from the tin whistle of Paul Roche, the man from Clare. Paul stands four square on the stage and delivers those haunting sounds that bring to mind the wild mountains and valleys of the West of Ireland. He seems to breath music into that instrument like a new James Galway.
The little man on the wings Dave McNevin had some trouble with his banjo strings, but good musician that he is , he knelt down in the corner and re-tuned it quietly on the spot, no trouble to him and then he was back with the rest of them plucking away, filling the Barbican with his dulcet notes and unerring rhythms. The quiet man on his right was Peter Keenan on the keyboard. He smiled and kept playing, keeping everything moving harmoniously. There was no need for drums. Everyone in the Barbican that night went home happy. It had been a feast of first-class music, the kind that Ireland could be proud of.