He started in County Kilkenny, but Darren Holden has put on the miles since then: over three years with Riverdance, on Broadway and then on tour, followed by the role of the Piano Man in the Tony Award-winning hit Movin' Out. First on Broadway again, then on a tour that spanned three continents and more than 1,000 performances, Darren's musicianship went far beyond simply covering Billy Joel's songs. Instead, with Joel's full support he mapped his own route and made the songs his own, winning unanimous critical acclaim in the US, Canada and Japan.
The role of lead vocals and piano would seem static – Darren's position in the show overlooked the dancers from behind the piano, perched a platform high above the stage where Twyla Tharp's choreography carried dancers and audience back to and through the Vietnam War and its aftermath. But it was the Piano Man that carried them all through the journey, connecting dancers, musicians, and audience on an emotional as well as a musical level.
After three and a half years of success, Movin' Out closed on January 21, 2007. Off the road for the first time in years, Darren just released a new album – aptly titled Roadworks – but hasn't stopped moving. Until a new tour is announced, you can get a taste of his work in a new video just up on his website, www.darrenholden.com, or go over to his MySpace page to take his music for a test ride.
Late in 2006, Darren spoke with Gwen Orel for a look both ways along the road.
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"People are always surprised to learn I'm Irish," laughs Darren Holden, better known as 'the Piano Man' to the fans of the hit Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp Broadway show, Movin' Out. "Everyone else is from Long Island and New Jersey."
Darren is as Irish as they come: in fact, he's from Kilkenny, and with his dark hair and easy smile, he has an Irish face, too, once you look for it. His beloved grandfather James was an uillean piper, who gave lessons in the instrument.
You wouldn't guess at Darren's heritage from the way he sings "Scene from an Italian Restaurant." He inhabits the lyrics as if he's lived through them. As lead vocalist and pianist in Movin' Out, Holden gives a nightly rock concert. He's younger, of course, than Joel, and when he plays, he has to take into account the dancers leaping to Twyla Tharp's choreography beneath him. It's a feat of musicality . . . and stamina.
Darren isn't new to the road – he spent three years on the road with Riverdance, following three years of performing in the show on Broadway. His new album Roadworks reflects his roving life. "The album was recorded in hotel rooms around the country," says Holden. It's his third solo album, and on it he collaborates with Tommy Byrnes, Billy Joel's musical director/guitarist. "It's the result of two years of writing and producing," Darren explains. To find time to work on it, "I had to do things like tell myself, 'OK, on Thursday I'll be creative from 12-4.' "
It's a discipline that has served him well, because the finished product is smooth and satisfying. Darren's last release, Live & Learn, was a country album that won him a nomination for "Best Country Male Artist" from the 2004 New Music Weekly Awards. Roadworks has the kind of power pop you might expect from someone who's been living as Billy Joel for the last few years. Growing up, Darren "had a great love for Thin Lizzie." In this album, he says, he went back to his rock and pop roots, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But in addition to strong rockers like "Bad Tattoo," the album includes some thoughtful, more mellow tunes such as "The Breath You Took Away," and "I Win, I Lose." Tommy Byrnes composed the last one, as well as the lovely "Something Stronger." Darren’s own original "Through Hell and High Water" is dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It's a pensive song that showcases his piano and lyrical skills:
I've heard heartbreak and the sound of screams,
as I wade through streets of broken dreams…
Darren was a pop singer long before he reached Broadway, but he became disillusioned by the opportunities he faced in Ireland. "It was all boy bands and girl bands," he explains. He should know: he was a teenage performer himself, performing with his band Wanted at age 16. He even worked with the group Boyzone in 1995. He was beginning to grow a little tired of that when Kieran Cavanaugh asked him to front the show Rhythm of the Dance. He was in that for ten months, when Riverdance producer John McColgan, who was in the audience one night, asked him to sing in Riverdance on Broadway.
"Without Riverdance, I would not be where I am now," Darren told Maya Cantu of broadwayworld.com in January 2007. "I am forever grateful to Bill Whelan, John McColgan and Moya Doherty for the great opportunity they gave me and for believing in me enough to make me lead vocalist.
"I guess my most special memory is the first day I performed the lead role, and as I turned to the audience during "At the Edge of the World," I spotted my mum. Her face told it all."
Darren's role in Riverdance wasn't entirely limited to vocals: "Believe it or not, I was a silver medal step dancer in Ireland when I was 13 years old! I did a bit of dancing at the start of Act Two, but thankfully no more than that!"
Coming to America with Riverdance gave him a "spurt of energy" which hasn't left him yet. "For generations, people have come to the States." In a way, he's just another example of the hopeful immigrant who finds his future in the new world. "It was the right place, at the right time," says Darren, who was carried along by the confidence and optimism he encountered in the US.
The time in America helped his career back home. When he returned, he found himself fielding interview requests. Suddenly, the radio stations played his album. He was profiled in magazines.
He met his wife, Michelle, also from Ireland, when they were both performing in Rhythm of the Dance; they now have a two-year-old son, Josh. Meanwhile, Darren's "base" is – well, the road. "I'm based in New York, Nashville, L.A.," he says. There's "no real work for gigging musicians" in Ireland, so the touring life will continue, at least for awhile. After the current breather, there’s talk of a return to Japan, where a six-week engagement of Movin’ Out in Tokyo last summer left Darren with a new host of fans clamouring for more.
Darren also told the Celtic Cafe that he's working on a Christmas album. It will include six new pop songs as well as some standards, and he'll sing "Silent Night" with the last verse in Irish. My shelf of Irish Christmas albums is growing, but I don't have an Irish Christmas-pop album yet, and Darren promises it will include pennywhistles. I'm looking forward to this.
Author: Gwen Orel
Editing: Louise Owen
Gwen Orel has been in love with Celtic music since she was a teenager. Founder of the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Back Stage. For the past two years, she hes produced Celtic music for the Folk Project, New Jersey.
Special thanks to Maya Cantu and Merle Frimark.