Showband: still partying after all these years

The raucous Irish-Canadian band that sprang from a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1963 and went on to entertain for some 33 years is reuniting for a cross-Canada tour.

The Carlton Showband has been a part of the Canadian landscape for two generations — and is still touring.

The Carlton Showband has been a part of the Canadian landscape for two generations — and is still touring.

The raucous Irish-Canadian band that sprang from a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1963 and went on to entertain for some 33 years is reuniting for a cross-Canada tour.

The Carlton Showband, fondly remembered by many as the house band for the Pig ’n’ Whistle Show on CTV in the 1970s, performs on Tuesday at the Memorial Centre in Red Deer.

Officially, the Juno Award-winning group retired in 1996 after going through some 14 musicians and spinning out 34 albums, many hitting gold and platinum in sales.

But it seems you can’t keep a crew with this much chemistry out of the spotlight.

On the verge of their reunion tour, laughs flowed as swiftly as memories for lead tenor Gregory Donaghey and banjo/guitar/mandolin player Freddy White, who reminisced about their early days with the Celtic-country-pop band.

Donaghey was an up-and-coming Irish singer who was recruited in 1976 to come to Canada to replace the band’s ailing former tenor Johnny Patterson.

“I flew straight from Dublin to Fort McMurray and had one hour of rehearsal before I had to go on,” remembered Donaghey, who is now 64 and lives in St. John’s, Nfld. “You could say I fell off the plane!”

The singer can still list the places he played during that first tour with the Carlton Showband, including the Calgary Stampede, Edmonton’s Klondike Days, Ottawa and Prince Edward Island . . . “I fell in love with Canada right there,” he added.

Those were the leisure suit days, recalled White. “We always wanted to dress well as musicians. We never wanted our audience to dress better than us.”

In the mid-1960s, the band wore dapper matching blazers, featuring pocket crests with crossed Irish and Canadian flags.

The group had made a fashion statement even earlier, wearing jackets the same colour green as the Irish Republican flag. “We also wore tight gold lamé pants, white shirts and gold shoes,” said White, who spray-painted black shoes golden.

“We were outrageous — I call it the Liberace syndrome,” said the laughing 68-year-old, who remembers band members once getting wolf whistles while walking up Toronto’s Yonge Street to their next gig — which happened to be next to a gay bar.

“We were so naive. We didn’t know anything about any of that,” added White, a Brampton, Ont.-based Cape Brettoner who’s the only founding member on the reunion tour.

The other musicians are drummer Roddie Lee, pianist Aaron Lewis, guitar/fiddle player Robert Benoit, and his brother, bassist Larris Benoit.

Besides hearing Carlton Showband favourites, such as Biddy McGraw (who strangled two men with the straps of her bra), Black Velvet Band, Harper’s Ferry and Sadie the Cleaning Lady, fans should get set for the comic reappearance of three-legged Jake The Peg, as performed by Donaghey, manipulating an extra limb.

“It took me about three months to get it up and running,” he recalled. “Every time I would move the leg, I would forget the words of the song.”

The Carlton Showband performs at 7 p.m. Tickets are $56.80 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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