It isn’t hard to find a fine Irish song in Western New York. Plenty of bars, social halls and neighborhoods cater to those among us who, whether by blood, marriage or camaraderie, have owned the pride of those green hills.
Buffalo’s infectious Irish pride helped give the Celtic Woman tour, which came through Shea’s Saturday night, an eager, genuine, homegrown welcome. The theatrical concert tour, which has been wowing PBS audiences and easy listeners for nearly 10 years, did not disappoint their anticipation.
While Celtic Woman is an anomaly in the long-standing tradition of Irish music, it is as standard as any pop group gets. The act’s schticky formula is what christened us with the likes of ’NSync, Backstreet Boys and Destiny’s Child – popular, hummable music; a handpicked, personality-defined ensemble; teasing, demure sex appeal; light choreographic movement; and a producer at the helm of it all, crafting the perfect proportions of the above to sell tickets, albums and merchandise.
And more power to them. The group’s concert specials might have landed on public television, and their albums on Barnes & Noble overhead play, with no small thanks to that proven pop engine, but their product is no less impressive. What producers Sharon Browne and David Downes – Downes, a former musical director for Celtic Woman’s dance predecessor, Riverdance – have assembled is a tribute to a nation’s legacy, a celebration of a people’s pride; and yes, a big, shiny, beautiful product.
Saturday night’s show spread its wings over all of these territories, giving each of the three female leads their own spotlights – along with energetic fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt, a four-person choir and a six-man band. The three vocalists – Chloe Agnew, Lisa Lambe and Susan McFadden – have beautiful voices, each suitable for center stage but capable of proper ensemble work too.
Blending, especially in this genre, is elemental to that harmonious sheen heard in so many of its songs. This particular Celtic Woman lineup is strong and tight, as is their fine band.
Performance styles aside, though, there’s still plenty of gimmick in this routine. The opening number, “Awakening,” a contemporary pop track with traditional textures and instrumentations, kicks the show off with a fanciful display of finger pointing and side winks. Their choreographic routine, which better resembled a strategic walking pattern than a spirited expression of something guttural, gave a sour first impression. It wasn’t just that it was corny, it’s that it wasn’t genuine to the heart of this kind of act. It was as if they had to re-sell us our own tickets.
That feeling thankfully didn’t last. The second number, led by Lambe, was a return back to land. The Celtic-language traditional tune was enchanting, inviting, captivating. It felt Irish, even if what kind of Irish whatever wasn’t immediately understood. (The song is about seaweed, so turns out the foreign-language lyrics weren’t a barrier after all.)
Nesbitt, who might appear as being less technically a “Celtic Woman,” simply because she plays fiddle and doesn’t sing, is an odd force in this ensemble. Nesbitt exudes the most potent sex appeal of the group (though they all turn theirs out, in appropriate and adequate doses), and does it while dancing up and down, and side to side – with a fiddle under her neck, no less. Her moves during “Coast of Galicia” and “Granuaile’s Dance” are the kind that would stop a dance floor of even stringless dancers, kicking and head-banging, twirling and leaping, flustered and yet seamless. It’s a bit much, but I guess as there’s not much to compare it to, it’s pretty wonderful.
McFadden, the newest addition to the lineup, sings what is one of the few quiet hybrids of the night, “Caledonia,” a 1970s Scottish folk ballad that with these world-pop arrangements sounds heartwarmingly traditional. McFadden, the least aggressive of these performers, landed the song beautifully.
When the four women perform together, though, that’s when the pop gears are in full effect. Consider Enya’s uber-popular “Orinoco Flow,” which always sounded like the irregular heartbeat of a belching whale. The heavily synthesized track, infectious as any boy band chart-topper, gets a thunderous performance here, from the soaring lights, to the overzealous percussion, to the twirling green dresses, to those exquisitely blended voices.
It’s a sound, much like the rest of Celtic Woman’s catalogue, that you want to hear more of, sing along to, dance an Irish jig to, and even more alluring, own a little piece of. Looks like the next decade of performances, albums, T-shirts and television specials will make sure that hope becomes a reality, no matter who is at the microphone.