There was a time in the 1990s that I thought if I heard the tune "Lord Of The Dance" one more time I would have gladly shot somebody. North America was going through one of its periodic flings with all things Irish, and the outlet for it this time was a troupe composed of Irish dancers, singers, and musicians performing a show called Riverdance. In all fairness, the original production was a thing of splendour and must have been an exhilarating experience to see live.
Of course it bred offshoots, the most famous being Lord Of The Dance the creation of Michael Flatley, the lead male dancer in the first go round of Riverdance. While Flatley's show was able to compete with its predecessor in terms of excitement and entertainment, other productions with lessor performers just haven't been as interesting. Lets face it, step dancing is step dancing no matter how you dress it up, and unless the lead has exceptional charisma and talent it can become pretty boring after a while.
One of the things that had impressed me most about Riverdance was, even though the music was towards the safe end of the scale, it was beautifully played and done as traditionally as possible. So it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that the former music director of that show, David Downes is also behind the creation of the latest Irish show to capture the attention of mainstream audiences in North America, Celtic Woman. With a cast of originally five experienced Irish folk music performers, now six, (Chole Agnew, Orla Fallon, Lisa Kelly, Malread Nesbitt, Lynn Hilary, and Alex Sharpe) they scored instant success with their first release back in 2005. In only three years they have combined sales of CDs and DVDs totaling over three million, and have appeared in concert halls across North America to sold out audiences. Numbers like these are unprecedented for world music groups so you have to figure they must be doing something right. Now with the release of a greatest hit package on October 28, '08, The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection on the Manhattan Records label, you have a great opportunity to check them out if you haven't done so yet.
Now I have to admit to being somewhat cynical, and more than a little bit jaded when it comes to all things Irish these days. What with the preponderance of new age Celtic web sites, the romantic notions about Irish nationalism that saw North Americans raising money for terrorist attacks by the IRA, and the idiocy surrounding St. Patrick's Day, (He was a Brit for goodness sake and the snakes he was killing off were the Irish people who didn't want to give up their traditional way of life and become Catholics) it just gets a little hard to take. So when I saw that the publicity shots that were included with my copy of The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection were of six very striking looking women in evening gowns I was prepared for the worse.
Thankfully Celtic Woman is not just a collection of pretty faces, and although I could live forever and not have to hear another version of "Danny Boy", it was the only song on the disc that even came close to being a cliche. Even better was David Downs showing the same willingness with Celtic Woman that he did with Riverdance to not restrict the music to the Irish folk music catalogue. Those all ready familiar with the performances of this ensemble won't be surprised at the inclusion of songs like "Ave Maria" or "Somewhere" from West Side Story on this collection of favourite songs from previous releases, but it gave me the first indication that this disc shouldn't be judged by appearances.
The second indication was the individual talents of the women involved. Each of them not only have natural abilities when it comes to singing, they also have obviously been well trained in how to use their voices. There's none of the straining or histrionics that I've come to associate with pop singers trying to achieve high notes. Instead their voices smoothly ascend and descend the scale without any apparent effort and without ever faltering. A sure sign of well trained voice is the ability to sustain a note for a protracted period and infuse it with character at the same time. It easy to have a loud voice, but to my mind the fact that the women on this recording don't automatically reach for volume as the solution for expressing strong emotion indicates an amount of maturity and talent that you rarely see among popular vocalists these days.
Downes does a wonderful job of creating arrangements that support the women's voices to the best advantage, so while they are never overwhelmed by the orchestra or other instruments, neither do they completely dominate the proceedings. One of the smarter things that he's done is have all the songs performed on what would be considered Irish instruments as well as regular orchestral and popular ones. This ensures that no matter the song the atmosphere never changes. The women aren't being made to try and accommodate any radical adjustments in style which gives them a comfort zone that guarantees their best performances possible.
You're not going to hear anything daring or new on The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection by the assembled voices and instruments of Celtic Women. However, what you are going to hear are sumptuous arrangements of traditional and modern instruments providing accompaniment for skilled and excellent sounding voices. Even if there might be an occasional song on the disc that you're not thrilled with you can't help but appreciate the talent on display. If you've not heard Celtic Woman before, and were wondering what the fuss was all about, this is the perfect disc to act as your introduction.