One tends to forgive a lot when a people's history has been as fraught with difficulty as has the Irish. Although Irish nationalist invective is aimed towards the English these days, they are merely the most recent of invading forces that have swept across the Islands to the west of mainland England. According to legend, even the Celts were invaders at one time, sweeping the original inhabitants away, only to be pursued themselves by the Romans, who in turn were raided by Saxons and Vikings alike before the English even got it together to invade. Even the supposed hero of Ireland, St. Patrick, was an invader, as he was a second-generation Roman, born in Britain, who led an army into Ireland to purge the traditional religion and ensure the ascendancy of Christianity.
So it's easy to understand and forgive them if they tend to get maudlin and sing songs that celebrate their occasional victories over an enemy, or get sentimental over the sound of a clear tenor voice singing of the glories of a dark-haired woman's sparkling eyes. Of course, there's a world of difference between the Chieftans or The Clancy Brothers singing the old songs and The Pogues tearing a hole through tradition and singing about Irish life in the twentieth century, but it's all from the same tradition. So to make generalizations about Irish music is as dangerous as it is to make generalizations about anyone's culture.
On the other hand, it gets a little difficult not to when, in recent years, we've seen an upsurge in the promotion of big-market Celtic extravagances like Riverdance and its offshoots. One of the more lucrative successors of the dance shows has been Celtic Woman, by the musical director of Riverdance, David Downes. Currently featuring four vocalists (there have been as many as five) and a violinist backed by traditional Irish instruments, a choir, and an orchestra, the show is a mixture of Irish songs, show tunes, contemporary music, and original material in one glitzy package.
Since its inception in 2005, the production has sold millions of CDs and DVDs, yielded television specials and appearances as well as countless live performances, and its debut album hit Number One on the Billboard world music charts for sixty-eight weeks.
This year Manhattan Records has released a compilation DVD, The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection, which brings together excerpts from three television shows — Live From The Helix Dublin, A New Journey: Live From Slane Castle, and A Christmas Celebration — serving as a retrospective of the production's existence to date.
Over the course of twenty-five tracks the DVD gives you a very good idea what it must be like to attend one of their shows — even though the Slane Castle show was staged and not shot live — as they capture the total experience with orchestration, lights, sets, and audience interaction. Of course, it also gives you a very good idea of what they are like musically. While there is no denying that all the women are gifted musically, that the music is carefully orchestrated and arranged, and that the individual soloists within the accompanying band are very talented, the show is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Therefore, many of the rough edges that can make folk music in general — and Irish music in particular — exciting, have been smoothed away for easy digestion.
The choice of material is the first clue as to the direction the show will take as it includes such chestnuts like "Danny Boy," a composition by David Foster called "The Prayer," "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," and other middle-of-the-road songs that could fit into any adult easy-listening playlist. The only occasions on the disc where the music even approaches some of the wildness and abandon that one associates with the best of Irish music are the violin solos by Mairead Nesbit as she careens around the stage, wailing away on her fiddle. In fact, her performances, especially on "Shenandoah – The Contradiction," where she's joined by both percussionists on bodhran, are probably the best musical aspects about the DVD.
Of course, in some ways the choice of material isn't really the appeal to these concerts; it's the spectacle that captures the imagination and captivates the audience. When you have anywhere up to six very attractive woman dressed in gowns appearing on exotic sets with a castle as a backdrop — like at Slane Castle — illuminated by lights and blazing torches, and backed by not only an orchestra but gifted individual musicians as well, you can't help but get caught up in the moment, regardless of the music. The package is designed to elicit an emotional reaction, and the DVD does this with far more success than a CD ever could as you are exposed to the full weight of the show.
Technically the disc is superlative, with Dolby digital sound and wide-screen picture. Although, since the original shows were recorded in the days before high definition and apparently shot directly to video, you still get the occasional color distortion in the background from the glare of the lights. As far as special features, aside from the main body of the disc, included is a documentary that explains how Celtic Woman came about, behind the scenes looks at the recording of the three television specials and the their second CD, as well as interviews with each of the regular cast members, David Downes, and various other members of the production company.
There can be no doubt that Celtic Woman is a phenomenal success the world over, selling out shows in Europe, North America, and Japan and continuing to sell CDs and DVDs by the bushel load. However, the music you hear on this DVD, and I'd have to assume on their CDs, isn't what you'd hear scratched out on fiddle and guitar down at the pub on a Saturday evening. And you're not going to hear anything even mildly controversial here, and precious little Gaelic. Light and ethereal, the music is as fluffy as a cloud and generally as substantial as candy floss, neatly packaged in a show designed to maximize emotional reactions and minimize thought. As musical extravagances go, Celtic Woman The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection works remarkably well, as an example of Irish or Celtic music. On the other hand, aside from occasional flashes of life, its a pale imitation at best.