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Home from home

Irish stars Byrne and Kelly launch unique fan retreat in Lake Placid

July 13, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - The Celtic Thunder duo of Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly took Lake Placid by storm this week during a one-of-a-kind fan experience: the first-ever Byrne and Kelly Fan Retreat at the High Peaks Resort.

During the wettest Adirondack summer in years, so far, the only thunder during some of the driest days in the past week came from Byrne and Kelly's mix of original and traditional Irish music and cover songs from their favorite UK, American and Australian artists.

"Well, you know, I think we have all definitely made Lake Placid our home from home," Byrne told a crowd of 115 retreaters Tuesday evening, July 11, under a white tent on the front lawn of the resort's Lake House. His comment was received by a rousing applause before the band began "Home From Home," a song from their third album, "Echoes."

Article Photos

Irish musicians Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly perform Tuesday evening, July 11, on the front lawn of the Lake House in Lake Placid during their first-ever fan retreat.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

After 10 years touring with Celtic Thunder and five years touring as Byrne and Kelly, the musical duo decided to create a new experience for their fans, a three-day retreat in a place far away from civilization, as they know it. They chose Lake Placid, booking the entire Lake House for three days and two nights, from Monday, July 10 to Wednesday, July 12.

"The Byrne and Kelly fan base has become a bit of a community over the years," said Kelly, a 38-year-old from Northern Ireland, taking a break from rehearsal Monday at the High Peaks Resort's Algonquin Room. "They come to your shows, but that's for two hours, and then everyone goes home, and we thought it would be a lovely experience to have it for a few days. The fans also get on well with each other. The music's at the center of this, of course, and that's the reason we put this retreat together, but we wanted to have it in a beautiful setting. It's all about the whole experience."

Byrne, a 39-year-old who grew up just south of Dublin, described the retreat as "a holiday with Byrne and Kelly with our back catalog of music."

"They're such amazing, loyal supporters," Byrne said. "Since we started writing our original music as well, people really loved the themes of our songs and the stories that go with all the songs, and it's brought the fan base closer to us, and us closer to them. ... This retreat has come about because of the relationship we have with the fans."

During Tuesday night's tent concert under a setting sun, which attracted residents and visitors walking along Saranac Avenue and Mirror Lake Drive, it was clear that Byrne and Kelly have a close relationship with their fans. One woman wore a Celtic Thunder T-shirt reading, "I (shamrock) Irish guys," and there were multiple comments in the audience about Byrne and Kelly being handsome. Many fans are smitten, not just with their looks but with their music, humor, charm, stories and friendly banter between songs. The retreaters sang along with gusto with many songs, including the set-ending "Brown Eyed Girl" from their debut album "Acoustically Irish."

"They are fantastic on harmony," said Ginny Henderson, a retreater from San Antonio, Texas. "They harmonize better than anybody you've ever heard, except maybe the Everly Brothers."

Henderson first saw Celtic Thunder in 2011 and Byrne and Kelly in 2012 when they initially teamed up for the Acoustic by Candlelight performances. She sees them every time they are in San Antonio and has attended one of the Celtic Thunder cruises.

"We're willing to travel a long way for them," Henderson said, adding that this was her first trip to Lake Placid. "I love it. I am absolutely floored by this part of the country. I heard that it was pretty, but I never realized how pretty it was."

On the first day of the retreat, Monday, guests checked into the Lake House by 4 p.m., receiving a swag bag of gifts. An hour of mingling - which included a guest's official photo with the entire Byrne and Kelly band - was followed by dinner, a 90-minute Byrne and Kelly concert and a pub quiz, which is a popular event on the Celtic Thunder Cruise in November.

By the end of day one, Henderson had noticed a major difference between the retreat and the Byrne and Kelly concerts she regularly attends.

"It's a structured retreat," she said, "but we are able to interact with them during the retreat whereas during their shows, we have a meet and greet beforehand and we get maybe a couple of minutes to talk to them and get a picture taken with them. But we've been able to spend some time with them during this retreat."

On the second day, Tuesday, retreaters spent the morning exploring Lake Placid on their own before an early afternoon event called the BK Olympics, with three-legged races, egg tosses, pinatas and more with the band. It was followed by a Mad Hatter tea party, 90-minute concert on the lawn, dinner, s'mores and stories around the fire pit, and a late-night acoustic jam starting at 11 p.m.

"People are coming from California, from Texas, from all over Canada, and they're all descending on Lake Placid," Kelly said. "It's just brilliant to think that all these people are going to make an effort to come for a few days of just music and craic (crack), as we say."

The reason Henderson traveled from San Antonio to Lake Placid was summed up in two words: "the music."

"Most of us have Irish roots, and we like it and we love their harmony," Henderson said. "And they are the nicest young men. They interact with their fans, and they keep in touch with their fans."

On the third day, breakfast was followed by a final farewell from the band - Neil Byrne, Ryan Kelly, Nicole Hudson (violin) and Peter Sheridan (keyboard and mandolin) that included a Q&A and an official 2017 Byrne and Kelly Fan Retreat group photo.

"Be sure to exchange email addresses, phone numbers and social media pages with all of your new friends that you've made while bonding over great music and a lot of good craic!" the retreat's itinerary states.


Life on the road

Born in the late 1970s, Byrne and Kelly are old enough to remember cassette tapes, vinyl albums and when CDs first hit the market in the late 1980s. They're keenly aware of the changes in the music industry over the past 30 years. That's why innovative events like their first fan retreat in Lake Placid are important to their income and their careers.

"I kind of like the fact that I've lived through the revolution of the digital age, that I can think back to the analog days and prior to the internet," Byrne said. "That's the big one. That was the big game changer because anybody can stream and download anything off the internet now, get things for free and copy things. Prior to that, people went and bought their albums in the shops. People always loved music, so sales were quite good. ... Now it's different. It's all about live music now, so musicians have to play live now."

While the retreat was designed specifically to create a new fan experience, not a new revenue stream, according to Byrne and Kelly tour manager Angela Halloran, the event did make some money. The cost was $675 per person, and although they capped the attendance at 120, there were 115 retreaters who showed up. Next year, it could be more.

"Let's get the experience of one year, and who knows what the next year is going to be," Kelly said.

The need for bands to tour in order to make money is a positive outcome of the digital age in music, but the loss of album sales to the internet is a reality they've had to face, according to Byrne.

"There's gigs every night everywhere in every city, and all the old bands are going back out on the road now," he said. "It's a terrible thing to see people's album sales that have gone right down because you just can't protect your music from people copying it and stealing it, basically. It's definitely a changing world."

Yet, the internet also gives musicians a chance to connect with fans like never before, using social media and YouTube to get their information and songs out to more people.

"It's made the world a lot smaller," Byrne said.

Since they rely more on concerts than CD sales, Byrne and Kelly find they're writing albums to tour.

"You get an album out there so you can tour that album," Kelly said. "I think we're lucky in the fact that, at the end of the day, we love the touring. We love the performing. We couldn't make a living on our CD sales at our level. Thankfully we've got a fantastic fan base that's growing, and it's all about getting out there and getting new markets and testing the water."

They've also found, with the duo and Celtic Thunder, that the North American market is imperative to their success as Irish musicians, and they connect with the market through original songs such as "Land of a Thousand Dreams" and "American Dream."

"There's so much support for the culture here," Kelly said. "And we're lucky to be going on the back of the support of Celtic Thunder has had over the years. ... It's a funny thing, even coming here in the early days of Celtic Thunder, I always expected it to be expats and people steeped in the Irish culture who would come to our shows, the same with Byrne and Kelly. But you get an awful lot of people who have no connection to the Irish culture. They just love the music, and they love what it represents."


The beginnings

Of the 10 male singers listed as Celtic Thunder vocal artists, the News asked Byrne and Kelly why they ended up touring with each other.

"It was by pure accident," Byrne said. "We were on a promotional tour with Celtic Thunder. It was the both of us, and we were doing a lot of PBS stations around the country. We had to do a lot of singing as part of the promo."

"And they just put the two of us together," Kelly added. "All the lads were doing separate PBS tours, and we happened to be together doing that."

"Just by chance," Byrne said. "There were volunteers answering phones for the station, and after a few of the station visits, people were coming up to us saying, 'You two guys, you sound great together. Why don't you think of doing a few gigs on the road.' We said, 'Thanks very much.' But then after a few people started saying it, we thought there might be something to this.

"So we scribbled together a set this between the two of us and said, 'Let's go and see who turns up.'"

They launched the Acoustic by Candlelight tour in 2012 before the Celtic Thunder tour.

"We did the first one in Florida, and it was great fun," Byrne said.

They toured, just the two of them, for two years, then added a piano player and violinist.

"The momentum grew, and we recorded and here we are three albums later," Byrne said.

"I think we're lucky because we both have similar interests in what we like musically and the direction we want to go," Kelly said. "That's important. If we're going in quite different directions, this would never work. Vocally we work well together, and we get on, which helps as well."


Back to Placid?

As far as returning to Lake Placid for another retreat, it's too early to say, but they remained optimistic at the beginning of the week.

"I think this, please God, will be an ongoing thing," Byrne said.

The retreat may go on, but Lake Placid may not be their official retreat headquarters every year. Their tour manager said they may end up going to other remote destinations to reach new markets and perhaps choose Lake Placid as part of a rotation. Either way, the duo sees only rewards - for the musicians and the fans - in their new three-day event.

"There's nothing better as a musician, as a songwriter and a performer, when you talk to people after the show and they're raving about the show and love the two hours they've had with you," Kelly said. "I guess we're trying to extend that into three days, and if we have people coming away from here in three days' time saying, 'I just loved those three days,' then that's massive for us. And if the demand is there to do it, we're happy to come back and do it again."



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