Return of the Voice You Can’t Forget

Singer-songwriter Don Stiffe

In 2010, we wrote about a then up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Galway. His, we wrote in a headline, is “a new voice you won’t forget.”

Since that time, Don Stiffe has become an arrived singer-songwriter from Galway and hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to forget his gift-from-God voice, thanks to his 2011 appearance on RTE’s “The All Ireland Talent Show,” one of Ireland’s most watched TV shows a la “America’s Got Talent,” on which he was a finalist.

Fresh off the Joannie Madden (Cherish the Ladies) “Folk’n’Irish” Cruise, with a new CD in hand (“Life’s Journey”), and a tour with the Kilfenora Ceili Band on the resume, Stiffe is heading to Philadelphia for a return engagement at the Irish Center on Sunday, Feb. 17. The show is produced by Marianne MacDonald, host of the “Come West Along the Road” radio show on WTMR 800AM every Sunday at noon.

MacDonald forged a relationship with Stiffe after, one day, deciding to blow the dust off a CD someone had given her to hear this new guy’s version of a song she loves, “Shanagolden.” She had the same reaction most people do when they hear Don Stiffe sing. “Wow,” she said.

“So I did what you usually do these days when you want to reach someone—I found him on Facebook!” she says, laughing. They chatted and she lured him to his first Philly gig, introducing him to fellow Galway native and musician, Gabriel Donohue, who served as his one-man-band accompanist.

Stiffe entered “The All-Ireland Talent Show” on the urging of his wife Elaine and three children. He didn’t win, but as it goes in many of these star-making series, even the runners up reap the rewards.

“You get the publicity out of it and it’s fantastic,” Stiffe told me a couple of weeks ago from Miami, where he was about to board the Joanie Madden cruise ship. “People take a bit more notice of you. In fact, when I was coming through Shannon, on of the immigration officers said to me, ‘Are you that person who was on that talent show one time?’ God almighty,” Stiffe says, laughing, “when an immigration officers pulls you up and starts talking about the bloody thing. . .I thought people would be thinking I was on some murder list or something! And she just would not let me go. She knew about the three kids, the family. . . .”

The real reward isn’t recognition though, says Stiffe. “It’s the work. Getting the work is a great thing. I didn’t think things would happen so fast. I got a nice bit of work at home, in different parts of the country.” He toured with Cherish the Ladies last year (they made a stop at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Theater to soldout crowds) and is with them again right now in Texas. And he hooked up with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, the oldest and possibly most famous ceili band in Ireland, which regularly sells out the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin.
“Touring with the Kilfenora Ceili Band was fantastic. We played all the big auditoriums in Ireland and people did recognize who I was. To get to a wider audience, to get steady work, that’s the name of the game. I’m not too concerned about the fame,” he says, laughing again. “It’s the work.”

But getting noticed is what’s bringing the work and Stiffe’s talent is drawing attention in many ways. In 2010, his version of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” from his debut album, “Start of a Dream,” earned him the “Vocal Cut of the Year” award from the Live Ireland awards. This year, one of his songs, “Somebody Special,” performed by his friend and fellow Galway native Matt Keane, was named Live Ireland’s pick for “Song of the Year.”

But, perhaps more important, this touching (and to Stiffe, very personal) love song has become the song of the year—and possibly, for years to come—of young Irish couples. “A lot of people are singing it at weddings,” says Stiffe. “That must mean something, hmm?”

Listen to Matt Keane’s version and you’ll understand why.

Even better, come to the Irish Center on Sunday night at 7 PM and ask Don to sing it himself. Guaranteed, you’ll never forget it.

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