If the mix of cable-knit sweaters and caps, pennywhistle, reels and jigs are your touch points for Irish music, Celtic Woman just might throw you. Consisting of four lasses (three vocalists and one fiddler), this quartet has been selling millions of records and raising boatloads of cash for PBS during its annual fundraisers ever since the then-fivesome was created by Susan Browne and David Downes back in 2004. With the latter being the former musical director of Riverdance, it’s no surprise that Celtic Woman is a glittery distillation of Irish culture thanks to a Vegas-worthy stage show packed with plenty of costume changes, step dancing, bagpipes, a choir and plenty of orchestration. And obviously, the group has garnered plenty of fans along the way as 2015 marks the group’s tenth anniversary, which its marking with an 80-city tour. Along with soloists Méav [Ni Mhaolchatha], Susan [McFadden] and newest member Mairéad [Carlin], it’s a concept and presentation that Celtic Woman founding member/fiddler Mairéad [pronounced like parade with an m] Nesbitt looks at as being an escape for the group’s millions of fans. (To learn more about the individual Celtic Woman members, click here.)
“There’s a lot [happening] onstage. Each of the soloists has different styles and then we come together for the ensemble numbers. So we all have about three or four solos each and then we come together for big ensemble numbers,” Nesbitt said. “It takes people through a journey for the two hours of the night that runs through Celtic, classical and contemporary music. It’s a big visual treat as well as a treat for the ears. It does take people away from the everyday worries about life. We like to take people on a journey for those two hours so they can enjoy themselves.”
To be sure, there are many fans that bristle at the notion that what Celtic Woman does is Irish music. Of the 85 responses to Cecily Kellogg’s Uppercase Woman blog posting entitled, “Celtic Woman, Oh How I Hate Thee,” most were overwhelmingly negative with a woman named Leslie posting, “I love traditional Irish music and there are lots of current performers playing wonderfully updated variations too but what they do is New Age-ified dreck without any redeeming value…” But for Nesbitt, who has been playing fiddle since she was 6, Celtic Woman doesn’t claim to represent Irish music. Instead, she looks at it as a hybrid of styles despite the fact that fare like “Danny Boy,” “Carrickfergus” and “The Water Is Wide” often makes it onto set lists.
“Celtic Woman is classified as world music but it’s a mix of music from Celtic and contemporary to classical. We all have our own different styles and then we all come together for the ethereal blend [of genres] that Celtic Woman has,” the fiddler explained. “There is great kind of storytelling in our music. The Irish are very good for storytelling in their songs and the melodies are very melodic for lack of a better word. It’s very accessible to people. The actual arrangements and new compositions by our music director and composer David Downes have that common thread to the whole journey of the show.”
In many ways, the Celtic Woman phenomenon is not unlike what St. Patrick’s Day has become—a joyous celebration of Irish culture that’s become far removed from its roots, which in the case of the latter is as a day of religious observation. But for those who grouse about what’s become of traditional Irish music, it’s a spirit of inclusion that’s endemic to both that Nesbitt embraces, particularly when it comes to that day of green beer and shamrocks.
“You know, you don’t have to be of any religion to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. And it’s actually gotten like that in Ireland in the last five to seven years. It doesn’t matter what background you’re from and I myself think that’s better,” Nesbitt declared. “I think that’s a good thing that it’s not just solely just for some people and it’s a really nice thing that everybody is included. I think it’s brilliant how you celebrate it over here [because] everybody wants to be Irish for a day.”
Celtic Woman will be appearing on March 20 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd., Greenvale. For more information, please call 516-299-3100 or visit www.tillescenter.org