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Singing for the Swells

John Byrne at a recent World Cafe Live performance with his band.

John Byrne at a recent World Cafe Live performance with his band.

By John Byrne

I had just landed in Dublin in late July. My wife, Dorothy, turned on her phone and saw that there was a message from Laura, the booking manager from World Café Live, inquiring as to whether or not we might be free for a gig on Monday, September 13th. Now, I run the Trad and Ballad Session at Slainte every Monday—and I don’t like to mess around with regular gigs at a place where we have a great relationship with the owners and staff. So I told Dorothy to tell Laura that I do have a booking that day but if it’s a big deal we can definitely look at working something out. Laura replied, “Oh, it’s a big deal.”

Zoom forward about 6-weeks and we were at the Constitution Center on 6th and Arch setting up the sound for our performance at the Presidential Reception for the Liberty Medal Presentation. The Liberty Medal folks had contacted the World Café folks and asked them to recommend a band for the show; they had recommended us. The room was pretty bare and some workers were milling about moving tables and chairs out of the room. We finished setting up the sound and ran through a few songs to make sure everything was quality. We were set to play from 5pm until just before 7pm when all the VIPs would move outside for the presentation itself.

All of our background checks came out clean (ha!) and all that was left for myself, Maura Dwyer, Andy Keenan and Chris Buchanan was to show up respectably dressed and do what we do. There were rumors of Bono showing up although the official word was that he would show up only on the giant video screen to the right of the stage – this turned out to be the case.

On the day we arrived about 3:30 PM, escorted through the waiting crowds by big blokes in black suits, and couldn’t believe the transformation that the room had made. An area that functions as the cafeteria had been completely transformed into an indoor English country garden complete with park benches, fountains, patio furniture, excellent English-themed food, and an enormous arrangement of flowers and trees. At 5 PM we were given the signal to begin and as the VIPs were led into the room we began with the tradition tune “Merrily Kissed the Quaker” following it with one of my own compositions “A Song With no Words.”

There were politicians and faces from local and national news, photographers from Philadelphia Style Magazine, and all-in-all a very polite and appreciative crowd. About 6:45 PM, President Bill Clinton, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mayor Michael Nutter and others were ushered past the room to the stage. The guests followed to their section as we played “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday”….and that was it. 

We got to stand to the left of the stage and watch the speeches, the moving video tributes from Bertie Ahern and Bono and the beautiful performance given by the Irish Tenors. A little after 8 pm we were asked to move our sound equipment as the VIP Room was to be transferred into the Press Room after the presentation. Once again, the big blokes in the black suits appeared to escort us, and by 9pm we were playing “Merrily Kissed the Quaker” again, this time at Slainte, preparing for our show the following night at World Café Live with The Young Dubliners. One of the TVs in the corner was showing highlights of the presentation—by then it all seemed just a little surreal.

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