The scene is the spacious ballroom of the Shearwater Hotel in Ballinasloe. It’s the Friday evening of the bank holiday weekend in May and the queue is out the door with those gathering to see a chap called Michael Fallon in concert. ‘Who?’ I hear you ask!
Born Michael Fallon, to parents Roisin and Sean, and one of four children, the man we know best nowadays as ‘Mike Denver’ grew up in a home not far from this renowned County Galway horse fair town where country music was part of the daily staple diet.
His mother Roisin, whose roots were in Donegal, was well known on the Galway music scene and played in bands as far back as Mike can remember and it’s clear that it was her influence and the very special communication skills learned in the Portumna-based homestead his Dad set up which have influenced his stage show style more than anything over the last 20 years. “My mam was very musical, and that’s how I actually started, when I was about 16, playing round all the local pubs,” Mike has already explained, “It went from there, really”. Today, he still lives in the small town of Portumna, but the industry he takes part in is a very different one to the one that was there prior to the covid pandemic.
With the crowd streaming in behind him, the popular singer slipped into the bar with some of his road crew for pre-show refreshments last Friday night and immediately engaged with friendly banter and the chat with anyone who cared to strike up conversation with him or seek a quick photo.
“They are queuing out the door and it’s as if the pandemic never happened here” I put it to the singer and entertainer when he came over to chat the birthday girl at our own table. “No. That’s not quite the case” he replied, “we would really only be back to half the crowds we were used to seeing before March 2019 and it’s coming back only very slowly”.
The fears and anxieties of many of us about the continued threat posed by Covid-19 is a very real factor in this. “We find the younger ones are all out at the dances at the weekends but some of our older fans are still being very careful” he says. Who could blame them? Many with underlying illness in society are still deliberately avoiding large crowds in confined spaces and the heat and sweat that goes with a really good Mike Denver show is not a place for the faint-hearted – no matter how many vaccines you have had.
It’s been a torrid time for Denver and his band and indeed the four other popular entertainers on Friday night’s bill in the Shearwater. Approaching 80 years of age in October of this year, Philomena Begley spoke candidly on the stage about the lockdown and what it has done to her from a psychological and financial point of view. Brendan Shine was in tip-top form with one of the best stage show contributions of the night on Friday but was equally grounded in his own travelling shows over the last two years. Ray Lynam has surely never faced a tougher test down all the years since he and Philomena Begley launched their first duet on an album launched in 1972.
The Irish performers on the stage here have suffered the same financial devastation as their brethren around the planet. The global music industry is worth over 50 billion euro, with two major income streams. The first lucrative part, live music, makes up over 50% of all total revenues and comes mainly from sales of tickets to live performances while the second aspect is the recorded music scene that combines revenue from streaming, digital downloads, physical sales across the counter and something called ‘synchronization revenues’ which is all about the licensing of music for movies, games, TV and advertising.
In the wake of the pandemic, those ‘shop’ sales, which represent a quarter of recorded music revenues, are down by about one-third – unsurprising given the closure of retail stores across the world – while digital sales have fallen around 11% too. There is plenty of evidence to show that the way people listen to their music at home is also changing in light of coronavirus. In the same way in which some people have not gone back to their local pub on a Saturday night or stepped back into a mortuary to pay respects to an acquaintance, we are all doing things slightly differently. In China, Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) reported changes to listening behaviour during the pandemic, with more consumers using home applications on TVs and smart devices and many of us now staying with those new habits.
Denver is stoic about the way the live music scene is recovering, albeit slowly after Covid. He points to next Christmas and perhaps even beyond that as a time when the attendances at his shows may be finally on a par with what they were and, in the meantime, he’s producing the sort of high-energy show for those who are prepared to go out that had well over 500 people cheering and applauding in their seats and in the aisles on Friday night in Ballinasloe.
He and his wife Elizabeth Gannon have just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary and on Friday night on stage he spoke emotionally about one of the few pluses that have emerged in the last three years of those ten on the road as the couple welcomed their first child, named Mia, into the world last March, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Of course because it was in Covid times the delivery was even more difficult as due to Covid-19 restrictions he was unable to be in the delivery room with his wife until the very end.
Mia has been born into a very different world and Denver knows, like the rest of us, that there will be good months and bad months – new strains of the virus and other tests down the line as inflation hits us all.
The big thing that really struck me about last weekend’s action-packed show in Ballinasloe was the hugely emotional effect he has on his audience in so many different ways. There’s a personal affection for the singer that is palpable in the ballroom all night and some very special moments when he engages with his biggest fans on stage and involves them in the show too. Michael Fallon is a five-star entertainer and his return to live performances this summer is a development we should all celebrate. Mike Denver is also a hell of a nice modest man to meet with. Here’s to his continued success.