Folk Stockton's Wing Empire Music Hall, Belfast

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The Independent Culture
Three years ago, Stockton's Wing - a respected but, through an ongoing dalliance with drum kits, not universally revered name in the Irish traditional scene - were hanging on for dear life. Although the professional life-span of trad acts is closer to that of jazz (where age improves) than rock (where people sell lots of records today and disappear tomorrow), consumer boundaries are blurring and the marketplace will no longer tolerate complacency. Stockton's Wing (their name was plucked from a lyric on the first Bruce Springsteen album) had reached that point. That they have managed to turn their critical and commercial fortunes around through sheer hard work and the finest record of a 17-year career with the recent Letting Go is testament to both exceptional grit and enduring quality.

The new energy, evidenced by a thrilling, occasionally incendiary performance at the Belfast Empire, is also to do with changes in personnel. Paul Roche, on flute / whistles, and Maurice Lennon, on fiddle, are all that remain from the original line-up but they are and were the group's key players. In 1993 Mike Hanrahan, songwriter and singer of the group's best-known Irish hit single "Walk Away", did just that.

Other bands would have pulled down the curtain on a respectable career - one that had seen guest spots at Irish concerts by Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra - but Lennon's unbelievable enthusiasm kept the spirit alive long enough to find a replacement in twentysomething former UK Rockschool winner Eamon McElholm. The reinvigoration that he brought has become a sight to behold.

A couple of the Hanrahan songs, obvious crowd-pleasers, were played at the Empire along with a fair smattering of the group's instrumental back pages - many of them sets of "genuine" trad tunes appended with fiery originals in similar style - but the core of the set is McElholm's own songs, from the current album and, presumably, the next. A cousin of Paul Brady, McElholm's style is similar but fresher and more contemporary in feel. The juxtaposition of rock and folk - with a sheen of class missing from most folk-rock acts as such - has been the Wing's trademark for years, and wonderful substantial songs like "Home", "Anybody Out There" and "Letting Go" fit perfectly with instrumental work-outs, from the riotous "Skidoo" (a favourite encore based on the riff from Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust") to the elegiac and yet unrecorded Lennon original "If Ever You Were Mine".

The chemistry and contrast between the three frontmen is exceptional: Roche, a six-foot-six Christy-Moore-meets-Jethro-Tull character, cheerleading with wry banter and wild gestures; Lennon, a mad professor, his mischievous grin and machine-gun eye-contact pushing everyone else to dizzier heights; McElholm, the clad-in-black rock star with sensitive songs and blistering acoustic guitar technique. With rhythm section in tow, it was an exhilarating, explosive combination.