Thursday, December 15, 2011

“Celtic Angels at Christmas” (Newvideo)/”Celtic Crossroads: World Fusion” (DPTV)

It’s that time of year, when I make my seasonal-music DVD recommendation for last-minute shoppers, perhaps looking for something special for the somewhat older member of the family. (Of course, you may feel free to buy it for yourself as well.). Last year, it was Andy Williams, this year it’s a marvelous collection of smooth Celtic Christmas music from the heavily Scottish island of Cape Breton, off the coast of Nova Scotia in the Maritime region of eastern Canada.

The Celtic Angels are not so much a “band”, as they are an ensemble of six women (including four from Nova Scotia, one from Prince Edward Island, and one from and island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland),. who perform solo and in small groupings, never all six at one time. The Angels perform on harp and fiddle as well as vocals, and are backed by a handful of (male) musicians on guitars and keyboards. The mood is very placid and peaceful, even on uptempo tunes, the performances polished to a very fine sheen. Even so, there is a lot of the Celtic tradition and of the earth in these moving renditions of centuries-old songs.

The tunes in this American release of a Canadian television special include several tunes that will be familiar to everyone - “Ave Maria” played by fiddler Gillian Boucher, “O Holy Night” by Kendra MacGillivray, ”The Holly and the Ivy” sung by Patricia Murray, and a bilingual (English and Gaelic) interpretation of “Silent Night”. “Winter Wonderland” is notable for the graceful step-dancing of Sabra MacGillivray and a few talented children, while Boucher ends the program by combining “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” with an Irish jig.

But rather than simply perform the old popular favorites, the Angels also delve into the traditional folk repertoire. Cape Breton singer Stephanie Hardy opens the proceedings with “The Holly Bears & Berry”. Murray gives us the beloved Irish “Wexford Carol”, while Hardy travels south to Appalachia for an uncharacteristically perky reading of John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder As I Wonder”. There are spirited fiddle tunes both by the MacGillivrays and by Gillian Boucher. But the finest selections of all may be the Gaelic hymns sung in the old tongue by the classic Scottish singer Maggie MacInnes (daughter of the acclaimed traditional singer Flora MacNeil), to her own accompaniment on the clarsach (Celtic harp).

There’s hardly a misstep to be found in any of the arrangements. The production is an ode to the effectiveness of simplicity - nothing fancy, nothing extraneous, hardly anything in the way of sets or visual hooks, nothing to detract from the music itself. There are short spoken introductions to put the songs into a context, but these are helpful rather than intrusive.

At only 48 minutes, the performance is rather short, no doubt a length dictated by the absence of commercials, which would have stretched this to fit an hour-long t.v. time-slot. (The commercials are far from missed!) But the 48 minutes are jam-packed with fine music, lovingly performed. I notice Amazon is selling this for less than $12, so the short length seems reasonable enough. A very nice addition to the growing catalog of Christmas music on DVD.
The DVD by Celtic Crossroads is not a seasonal disc by any means, but would doubtless make a greatly appreciated gift for the Irish-music lover on your gift list. Where the Celtic Angels aim for serenity, the 9-member Celtic Crossroads touring ensemble (seven musicians/singers playing over twenty instruments, plus two dancers) heads in the direction of visceral excitement. Both groups do a fine job of representing Celtic traditions (Irish in the case of Crossroads); the choice will depend on which mood you’re in at the moment.

The performers on this PBS special are all young in years (most look to be in their 20’s), but with a solid awareness of traditional Irish music and the history behind it. But they also like to add contemporary elements into the mix. For the most part, the ensemble sound has audible origins in the small group; of neo-traditionalists who popularized the old dance, air, and ballad repertoire during the 1970’s, bands such as De Danann, Planxty, and the Bothy Band. Like those iconic bands, Celtic Crossroads features the “classic” melodic instruments, such as fiddles, uillean pipes, wooden flute, tenor banjo, and accordion, adding a Celtic harp to conjure up comparisons to the Chieftains. But - also like the neo-traditional bands just mentioned, they add strong, rock-tinged accompaniment on acoustic guitar, bouzoukee, mandolin, and mandola, instruments rarely encountered in more rigorous performances by the hardest-core traditionalists.

They also essay some strictly contemporary songs - Andy Briggs’ “Last of the Great Whales”, Americana songwriter Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl” (which, to be sure, sounds as Irish as an Americana song possibly can), and - the most radical choice of all, “U2’s “With Or Without You”. But before you get to thinking they’ve jumped the shark with that last selection, I quickly point out that it’s given a lush, lyric-ballad treatment built around Celtic harp and flute (plus folk-style vocal). Viewers of all ages - and the live-concert audience skews toward gray - should be able to easily tolerate, even enjoy it. The title of the concert, “World Fusion”, is a reference to the fact that the group also performs some distinctly non-Irish pieces, such as Italian composer Vittorio Monti’s famous violin piece, “Czardas”, written in the style of Hungarian gypsy music; a medley of US fiddle favorites, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Orange Blossom Special”; and a piece curiously entitled “Cajun Blues”, which doesn’t sound especially Cajun to me, perhaps because it’s played on the tenor banjo. These non-Irish pieces are played with a showier, virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s sake abandon, less controlled than the pieces from their own tradition, but are entertaining as showpieces nonetheless. (When I say “their own tradition”, let me not overlook the fact that there’s an American and a Norwegian in the line-up.)

What separates Celtic Crossroads from other neo-traditional bands is the excellence of the dancing. Dancers Marcus Donnelly (who shows his agility on an old “brush dance” or “broom dance”, in which he dances with and around a broom) and Charlene Morrison are championship caliber, thus helping to make the Celtic Crossroads show a “complete package”. The singing is fine, the musicianship is intelligent - as a former bodhran player, I particularly appreciate Diarmid Hurley’s skill and inventiveness on the goat-frame drum - the arrangements true to their roots. It’s the “real deal”, for sure, but it’s a contemporary version of the real deal, not a preserved museum piece.

The concert itself lasts about 80 minutes. There is also a bonus feature in which the producers of the entourage talk bout the background of the show and its participants. Newcomers to Irish music, in particular, may learn quite a bit, while I found it held considerable interest throughout its 23-minute length. The sponsor of the concert and disc, Tourism Ireland, has appended three short promotional travelog segments plus a few seconds of several other promotional more clips, presented in such an ingratiating manner that one almost forgets one is looking at a commercial.

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