Sirens of the Heather
For me, music begins and ends with the Sex Pistols.
There is the rare occasion, however, when I discover something that really makes me sit up and take notice that is not anarchic, edgy, chaotic, or just plain racket.
Although this is an open secret among people who know me well (both of them), I have certain geeky tendencies. I love ABBA, for instance. [There, I said it out loud!! You happy now??]
When I fall for a woman it’s in a big way. No amount of superlatives or hyperbole can make anyone understand just how much in love with that woman I am. It is even harder to convey a sense of awe and adulation when speaking of a concept, but for your edification and amusement I will tell you why I am madly in love with Celtic Woman.
Fake Vocal Group History
The assembled vocal unit, a device of marketing and expedience largely created by the Shadow Mortons/Phil Spectors of the 1960s (the Dixie Cups, Bobby Soxx, et al), served no general purpose but to sell product.
In the good old days that product was records. [Unlike today where almost everything but the music is packaged and merchandised; the music is strictly secondary for such groups. It’s the mega bucks made on the image—clothing, video games, whatever—that counts.]
For a great example of behind-the-scenes machinations, in the 1960s almost any girl groups that featured Darlene Love were almost always an assemblage. Darlene Love, for the fetus-y among the readership, was a phenomenal talent who could sing in almost any style and was so highly sought for her skills that she had to “hide” and record under multiple “fake” girl group names to avoid breach-of-contract lawsuits from various record companies. This practice was relatively harmless. Darlene Love still got to make records, just under many names other than her own.
In the late 1960s, however, a music promoter got the wise-guy idea to create a “band” from a cartoon!! Thus, The Archies were born (created as a tie-in to the Saturday morning cartoon featuring Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and my all-time fave, Jughead). This had to be one of the most brilliant marketing strategies ever. The Archies were nothing more than a loose aggregate of whatever studio musicians happened to be sitting around that day, centered on the somewhat decent, bubble-gummy vocal talents of one man (Ron Dante).
The genius here is it cost almost nothing to churn out product. No band members to “sign”, no salaries to pay, (studio hacks generally got paid scale or a fixed hourly rate, and—when it was done it was done—no touring in support of the record [Hey, cartoons can’t tour!] Another bonus: no "artist" royalties, either.
The Archies’ first single, “Sugar, Sugar”, is an outstanding, shining, glorious moment of bubblegum pop—it sold millions and was a huge hit. All this from a band made of pen-and-ink and not flesh-and-blood.
But contrived bands stepped up with the assemblage of The Monkees, flesh-and-blood humans. This contrivance was meant to capitalize on both the Beatles’ popularity and the Beatles’ film-making style (used in Hard Day’s Night), only for television. To that end, a group of four “personalities” were assembled, based on stereotypes endorsed by the studio.
First, there was the McCartney-esqe moppet, Davy Jones (a song-and-dance man from Britain with no musical skills in a rock setting. d: Feb. 12, 2012). Then there was an actor, Mickey Dolenz (playing the wild hippie type). Peter Tork was a folky. Mike Nesmith (a genuine boho) was the real talent and the Lennon of the bunch. [Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper (the white gouache used to correct tying errors) roughly a decade before, so he and his family were loaded. He also wrote the song “Different Drum” for The Stone Poneys, a group that featured a very young Linda Ronstadt on lead vocals—that’s her singing on the record. It was a minor hit in the late Sixties, and it’s a great song.]
Of this group, only two were musicians—Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith. Jones and Dolenz couldn’t play a thing (and Davy Jones’ tambourine bashing doesn’t count). They later learned to play and write and eventually became successful on their own as a real working band. But they weren’t meant to be.
Neither was The Partridge Family.
Same deal: a network wanted a “hip” TV show to cash in on current perceived trends, and in the early Seventies pop/rock was the medium someone decided would make for great programming. A bunch of people were auditioned, and the net result was another fake band. Only David Cassidy could play an instrument, the guitar. His step-mother, Shirley Jones (with a long career of stage musical behind her) was the only other of the “Partridges” allowed to sing on record. The rest of the “group” were studio musicians. [One of whom was a respected jazz pianist, Mike Melvoin (d: 2012). His last name might ring a bell for aficionados of obscura: he is the father of Wendy, of Prince & The Revolution fame.]
By the 1980s, though, contrived vocal groups became slicker and more polished. Some, of course, were miserable and epic failures: Milli Vanilli (the jokes are all played out, so I won’t bother).
Some, however, had real talent. One of the better assembled vocal groups of the late 1980s (and highly underrated) was a “Miami sound” lush trio named Exposé. Although their line-up was shaky and several women floated through the group, they managed to post a few chart makers (“Seasons Change” and “Point of No Return” are probably the most familiar, but they had others) that were good records on their own merits. These women actually could sing as well. [Exposé is a rare case when I feel America might have missed something (the other loss, of course, is the tragedy of The Replacements never hitting it as big as they deserved). Ladies of Exposé, if you’re out there anywhere—I still love you!!
Then, we moved into the realm of the ridiculous. Nothing says in-your-face marketing and exploitation more than the contrived Spice Girls, a loathsome bunch of talentless wenches if ever any were assembled. [And no, Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham is not that hot (I mean, by British standards, yeah, but that bar is set pretty low).]
The Spice Girls were meant to do one thing and one thing only: take your money. And, stupidly, you gave it to them. Unlike groups like Exposé (who cared about the music), or even the studio geriatrics who were the real Milli Vanilli, The Spice Girls’ Svengalis threw every hook, cliché, and much schmaltz into their “music” as possible. Secondly, the “corporate” and overly cutesy identity of the unified “Spice” family (each broad having a goofy first name like “Dykey” or “Skanky” combined with the surname “Spice”—awwww, how cute . . . ) was a horrific joke. This sort of branding rarely gels; the only band who ever mattered for whom that tactic worked (and they are American and international musical icons whose place in music history is assured) was the Ramones. And trust me, Spice Girls, none of you were not even fit to carry the lowest Ramones’ roadie’s leather jacket.
Sadly, the sheeple are easily led. The Spice Girls, in their 15 minutes of fame, made more money than the Ramones ever hoped to see, but then (thankfully) it was over. They went away, rolling in your cash, laughing all the way to the bank. Today, we suffer Victoria Beckham sightings, but that’s relatively harmless—at least neither she nor any of the other Spice Girls goes anywhere near a recording studio now.
Pop music has had many such contrived and assembled acts over the years. Most of them are female (eye-candy appeal) and are throw-aways (like the Pussycat Dolls, another low-concept Spice Girls kind of outfit that is likewise just as useless as the template).
There can be that one gem-like “Eureka” moment, however, when someone of true vision and ability gets a brainstorm, and puts together something that is entertaining, significant, grandiose, and worthy. The net result is Celtic Woman.
Theory into Practice
**When people go to see Broadway shows, they go to see the show. Most people don’t follow the stars of theater. The play’s the thing (or the revue, or the cabaret). So, when forming such acts, big names do not matter. Anonymity, in fact, is better – the talent can be developed, there are no egos to stroke. Anyone who has seen the Broadway show Cats [probably better known by its working title, Ca$h] couldn’t care less that Robbie Van der Snoot played “The Cat Who Licks His ’Nads”. They just went to see the furballs fly!!
Riverdance is such a construct. This act was hugely successful. Name one “star” in it, though. You can’t. That’s by design. It is never billed as “Riverdance featuring Robbie Van der Snoot”. It is The Show that is the star of Riverdance, not the individuals. In huge shows like Riverdance the behind-the-scenes staff are just as well-known as the stage performers, and they are consummate professionals (they have to be, given the budgets and financial risks involved).
Oh, yeah, it’s also the producers who are the real stars of musical theater.
Sometimes producers fail (the Mel Brooks classic comedy, The Producers, gives a hilarious skewering to Broadway theater folderol). The good producers, however, know their markets. And if there isn’t a market, the really smart producers create one. In the wake of Riverdance’s phenomenal success, particularly in the US, David Downes (a former Riverdance musical director) partnered with Sharon Browne to develop a musical act that featured Celtic folk and traditional music combined with more modern sounds. And thus the collective, Celtic Woman, was conceived.
The intelligence of these two innovators cannot be overstated, starting with the name of their project: Celtic Woman. The use of the word “Celtic” is good marketing strategy; “Celtic” is an all-encompassing vagary whereas “Irish” is pretty specific. And, yeah, there are still some jackholes out there who don’t like Irish people, so “Celtic” was clear thinking on the part of The Creators.
Also, the group is not “Celtic Women” but “Woman” in the singular. This works on two levels. First, the concept of the feminine is addressed in the title and all that embodies: the legends, the imaginings, the iconography, the mythos. The focus is on the art itself, for the same reason that Riverdance is not called Riverdancers. For Riverdance, the “dance” is more important than the dancers. For Celtic Woman, it is the abstract “Woman” who is more important than any individual female who might be in the group.
The name is a great gimmick, and it can conjure different things for different people. My immediate mental picture was of a brazen warrior princess hiking across the greensward, leather shield and battle-ax in readiness, her long auburn tresses windblown and copper-blazed in the late afternoon sun—ahhhh, that’s my Celtic woman.
For you, the Celtic woman might be your sweet old granny sipping tea and watching Dr. Phil. [You’re wrong, of course, but that’s okay. The conceivers really want you to think of the romantic, windswept heather, the Woman standing on a seaside craggy cliff top, her burnished locks aglow in the afternoon sun, her leather shield and battle-ax . . . oh, sorry, just drifted off.]
But the truly pragmatic thing associated with the word “Woman” is the ladies are interchangeable parts. The constituent is a part of the much greater whole, sort of like The Mormon Tabernacle Choir—one person really doesn’t shine so much as the group does. That’s right—if one of them doesn’t work out, she’s a cog in the machinery. Unlike bands whose individuals are stars, the women of Celtic Woman are focused on the unit. That does not mean they are not stars in their own right or bring nothing of their individuality to the unit (I’ll get to that), but it does convey a sense of “bigness”.
So, the concept and name were set. The idea was to use as many traditional elements (Celtic riffs and Irish instruments) and to reinterpret some standards in a Celtic idiom. All things were set, except The Creators needed some women. And, oh what a bunch The Creators found!!
Meet ’n’ Greet
I don’t know what method was used to audition the women (I know what auditioning method I would use—heh, heh, heh). If the judges had to screen any more than ten aspirants of the talent level this group has then that had to be one of the toughest auditions ever.
Get one thing straight now lest there be doubts: these women are not hacks or canaries. These women can sing. Their voices soar, they are clear and ringing, and each of them has the ability (despite the Enormo-Dome settings of their shows) to create an atmosphere of intimacy when she solos. They all have this talent, and it is magical.
So, I guess chronologically would be the best route here for a quick rundown of who’s who.
Oh, and the women did not know each other nor had they performed together before being incorporated into the Celtic Woman world. That’s also a good thing—no preconceptions of each other or the sound. One last thing, and then we’ll meet the dames. This band has had more personnel changes than REO Speedwagon, so I made up a scorecard to help you keep up. [There is one woman missing, because she only filled in for a short time. Her name is Deirdre Shannon.] Ten women in less than a decade.
Also, because the women are Irish, they have many dialectical marks in their names. Just bear with me, and I’ll do the best I can. [My name in Celtic, for example, is “Thòóotýøþãernero Go€ßçñœrtedsÀachllanhue”. And that’s just my first name!]
In 2004 with the back-end of the business secured, the first line-up of the phenomenal Celtic Woman was introduced. Chloë Agnew (born in 1989 she was the baby of the bunch, the blond who is just a wee bit fluffier than the other women), Órla Fallon (an auburn haired babe), Lisa Kelly (another cute blond), Méav Ní Mhaolchatha (an ethereal blond), and the dynamo that is the stunning fiddler, Máiréad Nesbitt. [Máiréad gets her own special love from me in another piece. Right now I’m trying to keep up at least a semblance of dignity before I start slobbering.]
Over the next few years women shifted in and out (in one case there were six women in a group of five). In 2005 Méav got pregnant, and Deirdre Shannon filled her spot. Deirdre left in February 2006 when Méav came back. The next change came in September 2006, when Hayley Westenra (from New Zealand!) joined. She alternated with Méav for touring that year (there were always five women live, but you never knew which five you were gonna get).
In August 2007, Méav called it quits to focus on a solo career. She was replaced by a stunning brunette beauty named Lynn Hilary. Original member Lisa Kelly left in December 2007 for maternity leave. [In December 2011, she was pregnant—again!! Danged if pregnancy doesn’t ruin everything. It’s a disease that should be stamped out in our lifetime.] Lisa Kelly was replaced by Alex Sharpe, an alluring auburn-locked lass, whose leather shield and battle-ax . . . wait, sorry . . . I’ll stop.
The unit became five again in 2009 when Lisa Kelly returned to work. This is what I think of as the classic line-up of Celtic Woman. Original member Órla Fallon left about this time, leaving Alex the only ginger girl on board. So, we had Chloë Agnew, Lynn Hilary, Lisa Kelly, Alex Sharpe, and fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt. This is the line-up I fell madly in love with
PBS is known for many great things. The annoyance of pledge drive Hell Week is not one of them, and it generally forces me to abandon PBS during that time. But, several years ago I got suckered. PBS had this group of women, all stunning, all individuals, cohesively knit together, united in a larger-than-life concept, and I was hooked immediately. Most bands have to grow on me. This one did not: I loved them right away.
I didn’t get to stay happy too long with my classic line-up, though. In May 2010 the gorgeous Alex Sharpe took a breather from the group to focus on her family. [There’s that bunch of meddling kids again!] I was okay, though. I still had Lisa K, Chloë, the supermodel beautiful Lynn, and (the love of my life) Máiréad Nesbitt.
But then in November 2010, disaster struck—Lynn Hilary called it quits to stay home in Ireland. I was devastated (nothing against the remaining gals, but this is kind of like REO Speedwagon minus Kevin Cronin and Gary Richrath). I truly loved Lynn and Alex (especially Alex). Anyway, Lynn was replaced by a blond singer/actress named Lisa Lambe in 2011. I hadn’t heard Lisa Lambe sing, but I didn’t have to—for her to be invited into this group she obviously could sing well. [And since then, I have heard her and she is a perfect fit, even though she is gone from the collective as of 2016].
My only disappointment was in losing the window dressing of Alex and Lynn. Nothing against blonds, but now I had four blond Celtic women. I liked the mix-up of my redhead and brunette. [Maybe Lisa K. could dye her hair black and Chloë could’ve been a redhead—man, I bet Chloë would’ve been extra hot with copper locks!]
So now you know who you’re dealing with for my initial take: Chloë, fiddler Máiréad, Lisa K, and new girl Lisa L (replaced in late 2015 by Éabha McMahon).
On with the show.
The REALLY Big Show
The unparalleled rock band Queen in its heyday (with the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury as front man, Brian May’s guitar orchestrations, the pounding and intricate rhythm section of boss bass man John Deacon and wildman drummer Roger Taylor) was known for its bombast and extravagance in its live shows.
Celtic Woman—I kid you not—makes Queen look like a bunch of amateurs when it comes to BIG!! Their shows define “bombastic”.
They are over-the-top spectacles of light, sound, smoke and fog, visuals, and PEOPLE. They bring full orchestration with them, including an array of common and rare Celtic folk instruments (many of which I’ve never seen before, let alone heard played live). Their shows are fantastic for their esoterica.
On-stage personnel alone must exceed a hundred (musicians, backup and chorale singers, conductors and musical directors, the list do go on).
And in the middle of all this are the four women.
And they are not slouches. There is no part of their shows I don’t like, but my favorite parts are when Máiréad is spotlighted, tearing up the stage like a cyclone, ratcheting away at her fiddle. She is truly awesome.
I love when the women sing together, I love it when each woman gets her solos (and this is where their individual personalities shine through—each woman is different, and she lets that be part of her presentation at those times). [Actually, the solo aspect of their performances is why I miss Alex so much—the first time I ever heard her open her song hole and stuff came out it was mesmerizing. I sat in stunned silence until she was done.] And it is this ability to create intimacy in a huge venue that makes these women consummate professionals. It is a gift.
The women are poised—that’s about the best word to describe them. I have no idea what they are like off-stage, but on-stage they are graceful and elegant, and yes, playful. The visual package of Celtic Woman is obvious. They are all beautiful. I would like for them all to lie on top of me in a big ol’ sloppy pile of Celtic Womanly love (the last time I felt like that about a female vocal group was over En Vogue in the last century). But beyond their certain physical appeal, they are extremely talented. The truth is these women could all probably look like Ernest Borgnine and still have successful careers as singers.
In 2013 Chloë took time off to focus on her solo career (she had recorded several things independently before). She and Lisa Kelly were replaced by other women, Susan McFadden and yet another Máiréad, Máiréad Carlin (though, in my heart of hearts there will only be one Máiréad and that will always be Máiréad Nesbitt). They have a rapport with their teeming audiences, mostly displayed in their solo turns. I love all of them.
But just once I’d like to see the gals leathered ’n’ laced like rocker, Lita Ford. That would be pretty hot.
Failing a full-on rocker chick costume makeover, maybe somebody could just put tool belts on ’em. I mean, I majored in mathematics in college, but you don’t need a degree in mathematics to appreciate this: WOMEN + TOOL BELTS = HOT!
The Celtic Woman experience, because of its sheer size, is frankly best seen on a video screen. Any of their live shows are usually played in gigantic, sold-out venues, oftentimes outdoors. It would be the same as seeing the Rolling Stones live (not that I would, I’m not a fan, but you get my point); you’d miss most of the action from being in the nosebleed seats.
Nope, Celtic Woman is best experienced on the DVDs of their shows, and on PBS. And even if PBS runs a Celtic Woman show I’ve already seen I’ll watch it again . . . and again . . . and again . . . waiting for the auburn warrior lass to come charging over the heather, her leather shield and battle-ax at the ready.
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