Ottawa Citizen -
Twenty years ago, when Con O'Brien joined the Irish Descen-dants, there was a thirst for folk bands specializing in Irish songs, especially in Newfoundland.
We're not sure if fans were pounding their beer glasses on the table to encourage pub owners to hire musicians, but O'Brien sensed the demand.
"When I started playing in this band, there was hardly any other bands doing what we do," O'Brien says. "Now there's oodles of them. They're out there plying their trade, making records, promoting themselves. It's like we've been up one wave and down another, and now we're starting up another."
O'Brien was one of the founding members of the group, formed when he and three friends, all former fish-industry workers, realized they could make a living singing Irish folk songs in pubs. Their powerful voices and rich harmonies were discovered by Sam "the Record Man" Sniderman, who helped them land a record deal.
In the early '90s, they were one of several folky acts from the Atlantic provinces signed to major labels (others included the Barra MacNeils and the Rankin Family). The Descendants had a string of gold records, sold out concerts across North America and won a Juno Award.
Although O'Brien is the sole original member of the group, he's paying tribute to the various chapters of the band's history on "Encore," a new retrospective disc. "I've been the constant my whole career, but over the years, I've had some wonderful players," O'Brien says, describing the song-selection process as basically a popularity contest. "But it's also about trying to balance the different personnel that have been in the band over the years. It's nice to show the new fans the different aspects of the band."
The latest incarnation includes Ontario's Duncan Cameron and Newfoundlander Graham Wells, two fine instrumentalists with strong voices. "The way we approach things from the original lineup to today hasn't really changed," O'Brien says. "It's exciting arrangements around real good musicianship and vocals. Right now we're really strong in all those categories. When you hear those harmonies coming out, this particular band is quite exciting."
After a few quieter years, when the tour schedule was cut back to 70 or 80 shows a year, partly to accommodate O'Brien's desire to be home with his two young children, the band will bump it up to about 120 shows for 2010. The current Canadian tour stops at Centre-pointe Theatre today, undoubtedly the most important day of the year for the Descendants.
Back in St. John's, O'Brien has fond memories of roaming from pub to pub to celebrate St. Paddy's Day. But it's also the day when the demand for the band's services is strongest so he's often out of town, performing anywhere from Florida to Alberta. Last year, they were out west; this year, it's Ottawa's turn. "We try to spread it out across the regions," O'Brien says. "It's always a big night for us and we always look forward to it."
Another trip he's looking forward to will take place this summer. The band is planning a boat tour of Newfoundland's coastal villages. The boat, which belongs to O'Brien's father, is an old 45-foot longliner that's been converted to a pleasure craft. The band members and a camera crew will take three weeks for the journey, stopping to perform at festivals and community events along the way.
"Living on the coast, boating is part of life," O'Brien says. "We'll take the boat and go around to various parts of Newfoundland where the original band came from, revisit the band's roots and shoot a DVD along the trip. It's not a huge epic voyage but there's a few 10-hour runs."