Pros: terrific songs and vocals, nifty set, getting to see audience reactions
Cons: some rather corny visual moments, a couple songs from CDs don't pop up here
A few years back, my parents and I discovered the music group Celtic Woman the way most people did - by seeing the concert / fundraising extravaganza on PBS. A few months ago, that same format introduced us to Celtic Thunder, the male counterpart. The groups are cut from the same basic mold, but Celtic Thunder is much more pop-oriented, with a number of songs that aren't representative of Celtic culture at all. There's also the matter of all the squealing women, a phenomenon absent from the Celtic Woman concert, and the fact that only one member of the quintet plays a musical instrument as part of the show. Still, if you like Celtic Woman, chances are you'll get a kick out of Celtic Thunder too.
The official concert DVD contains 28 different songs, all of which can also be found on the CDs Celtic Thunder and Celtic Thunder: Act Two. For more detailed comments on each of the songs, see my reviews of those albums. This review will give more of a general overview of the material, broken down by performer, and discuss visual elements that set the DVD apart from the CDs.
George is the senior member of Celtic Thunder at 41, and his shiny bald head gives the impression that he's older still. Though he is Scottish, he reminds me of Joe Millar, the oldest member of the Irish Rovers who often performs their most beautiful ballads. George's rumbling baritone is well-suited to his solo songs, all of which revolve around family in one way or another. What George, a respected balladeer with an impressive music career already behind him, lacks in the eye candy department, he makes up in gravitas. He feels like the wise older brother to the rest of the pack, and he sings his songs with affection and sincerity.
The Voyage is the first of his songs that I heard. Its nautical theme goes well with Heartland, which starts off the show, and it reminds me of Desmond, the seafaring Scotsman from LOST. Like the elegiac The Old Man and the conflicted My Boy, it is achingly tender. Yesterday's Men is distinct from the other three by virtue of its bitter tone and spirited tempo. Oddly, it's included as a "bonus track," accessible only through the song list and not integrated as a part of the concert. Hence, it was the last of George's songs that I heard, and although it's a downer, I think I've settled on this lively number as my favorite of his songs.
Ryan Kelly and Paul Byrom
A 30-year-old from Northern Ireland, Ryan looks like a more mischievous version of Donny Osmond. He was the first member of the group that I saw, when his warm smile and sparkling eyes enhanced his moving rendition of Desperado, which is probably still my favorite track on the DVD. His smile is far more faint on the wistful Brothers in Arms, increasing its impact when it finally turns up. For Heartbreaker, he struts and smirks as he plays off of a serene cellist and a fiery dancer, impishly growling out his flimsy protests to the accusations lodged against him. Halfway between the two is Ride On, which feels restless and regretful all at once.
While Ryan is fairly new to professional music, having obtained two degrees in accounting before getting involved in Celtic Thunder, lanky 29-year-old Irishman Paul Byrom is classically trained and has released two albums. He has an old-fashioned look and sound about him, and his face tends to wear a sweetly melancholy expression. While I almost consider him too polished for my tastes, there's no denying he has an excellent voice. While Ryan's subject matter is varied, all of Paul's songs have a romantic theme.
In the theatrical duet That's a Woman, Paul plays the sap against Ryan's sneering cynic as they debate the value of a particular woman seductively portrayed by dancer Zara Curtis. This is one of the funniest moments in the show, though it's a rather sad commentary on human relationships, since two parties are completely shallow, while the other is hopelessly naive. Paul's other songs all allow him the opportunity to show off his pipes, though Remember Me and Love Thee Dearest feel rather out of place with their Spanish and Italian lyrics. Nights in White Satin has a slightly more contemporary sound, though it seems trapped in the 80s; all the close-ups on Paul's pensive facial expressions make the song more appealing, however. My favorite of his solos is the soulful She, which builds from a soft start to a powerful finish.
22-year-old Keith, a feathery-haired blond from Northern Ireland, reminds me of David Cassidy in his heyday. Like Paul, he specializes in romantic songs here, and he's certainly got the teen dream thing going on; you can just hear the flutter of sighs sweep across the tweens in the audience when he takes the stage, and the effect seems amplified when he accompanies himself on the guitar. He does this for the gentle Mountains of Mourne, an epistolary ballad about longing for one's homeland and the people connected with it. I love his earnest delivery as well as the lilting flute whose melody floods the stage like a summons home on my favorite of his songs.
The Island is similarly stirring, with a snarky political message offsetting the dreamy chorus, though I find myself a bit distracted by Keith's oversized fisherman's cap, which threatens to obscure his eyes. Lauren and I, which Keith penned himself, feels nicely authentic in a show that is so carefully manufactured, while the overwrought I Want to Know What Love Is comes off as a tad cheesy. I feel like the producers could have matched him up with a better selection on this one.
16-year-old Damian is from the same part of Northern Ireland as Keith, and there is a certain similarity in their youthful tenors that caused me to mix them up on the album before I watched their performances. At the time this concert was filmed, Damian was only 14, and seeing this bright-eyed lad perform is a kick because he looks so much younger than he sounds. "What is he, like, seven?" my brother demanded as he studied the cover. Judging by their gleefully astonished expressions, he seems to be the favorite among most older audience members in Dublin.
He plays the wunderkind card to the hilt in Puppy Love and Young Love, two songs about a teenager's first experience with romance. He hams it up particularly in the former, while the latter is more amusing for the baffling antics of Ryan, Paul and Keith, who take the stage dressed in Damian t-shirts and trail him like a trio of starry-eyed groupies. He plays it natural for his other solos, though, letting his pure tone transport listeners in Come By the Hills, a simple, lovely song that pops up elsewhere on the DVD as the backdrop to an advertisement encouraging people to visit Ireland. With such a lovely invitation, that's an offer that's hard to resist... Damian's other big moment is A Bird Without Wings, which pairs him up with George, who supports him with subtle background vocals. That paternal touch may just be enough to make this soaring song of gratitude my favorite of Damian's songs.
The men sing a few songs together, and there's power and harmony in the blending of those voices. The complaint some might have with the DVD is that these group numbers also subject us to some potentially corny choreography and costumes. Their manner of moving when they are all on stage together has a curious military-style precision to it, and there's something weirdly Matrix-like about seeing the five of them standing there in jet-black kilts with matching suit jackets during Caledonia, the big bagpipe-laden finale. Bagpipes also play a big role in the Paul McCartney-penned Mull of Kintyre, and there are several drummers in red plaid kilts, but the singers get to stick with more conventional legwear for that one.
I like the set-up of the stage, which is designed to look as though it were made of ancient stone and which allows performers to pass by the orchestra divided into two pits and come within arm's reach of the audience. I'm also a fan of the shifting lighting and the atmospheric cloud background projected along the back wall, and though I think they sometimes get carried away with the fog, it fits the stormy motif well. The stormiest song of all is Heartland, an epic request for divine intervention from several sailors. There is particular power in the men's blended voices here and in the gung-ho Ireland's Call, while the most exquisite harmonizing comes about in the a cappella Steal Away. Since most of their songs are so serious, the manic energy of Raggle Taggle Gypsy makes for a nice change, and it gives the outstanding instrumentalists, particularly the percussionists, a chance to demonstrate their prowess. These talented musicians also get one song all to themselves with Cal / Local Boy.
If you want to check the guys out without committing to the DVD or waiting around until it airs on your local PBS station again, all of the songs on this DVD, plus a handful of others, are available on YouTube. If you find yourself hooked as quickly as we were in my house, the Celtic Thunder concert DVD should prove a very worthwhile investment.