UCF Arena, Orlando FL • November 12, 2008
Carl F Gauze
Celtic music is big business these days, and Celtic Thunder just jumped on the bandwagon. The group appeared about a year or so ago and seems to be partly owned by the PBS network. This gives them a built-in demographic with the older crowd who responded enthusiastically to their brand of slick vocals, willowy women on strings, and Irish-tinged music.
Celtic Thunder reminds me of an updated “boy band” from the ’90s. These five men each represent an archetypical male role: Paul Byrom is the responsible guy, George Donaldson the wizened mentor, Keith Harkin the ambiguous pretty boy, roguish Ryan Kelly the sexually-dangerous man, and Damian McGinty the precocious youth. These guys are good, no question, and the audience hooted and hollered as they rotated through their set. What’s weak here is the material, and the sense that this isn’t as much a band as a musical revue. The rhythm of the show was very mechanical — all five would do an ensemble number, then each does a solo, then all five came out again, and so on. The band never introduced themselves or their back-up, and the performances all felt completely interchangeable. And then there’s the material…
The first half of the show leaned toward what might be called original material. A little digging reveals that this stuff was largely written by Phil Coulter, a composer with an impressive discography of records featuring the word “tranquility” in the title. Keith Harkin did write the melodic “Lauren and I,” but Celtic Thunder are principally performers. Nothing wrong with this, that’s how Elvis worked, but the Celtic styling as just that — a copy of a style, modified to meet their strengths. While the Celtic Thunder performers are authentically Irish, the music sounds more Irish-ish than what you might hear in a Boston or Kilarney pub. In the second act, the boys did more covers, and these were the songs that really worked for me. Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love” sung by Damian McGinty grabbed me, as did as the Eagles “Desperado” and Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” They hit their high point with an ensemble rendition “Danny Boy”.
What came across as most authentically Celtic was a short bridge number that led into the carefully-scripted encore. While the boys went back stage to slip into their matching gray flannel kilts, one of the wild hair violinists danced wildly across the stage playing a jig and flirting with the bass player. Another attempt at authenticity was the blow out number “Ireland!” The stage was flooded in orange and green lights, a waving flag was projected on the travelogue screen, and we applauded as the boys sang about the unity and spirit of Ireland. This must be a soccer reference, last time I checked there was some sort of civil dispute about religion dragging on. But we’re not here tonight to argue politics; this music is alcohol, sex, and violence free.
Celtic Thunder has wonderful voices, and once the sound guy got the low notes leveled out in this cavernous arena, they sounded great even if you longed for some earthier lyrics. If you prefer your Irish Coffee decaffeinated and alcohol-free, these archetypes can sing their souls out. But they feel productized and lack the energy of a drunken night singing along with Black Velvet Band or Whiskey in the Jar. That’s the stereotype; you have to at least give it a nod.