Irish music sensation Celtic Woman are currently on tour in support of their Ancient Land album, which was currently re-released as a deluxe version with additional songs from the tour. I had the pleasure of listening to this music in person when Celtic Woman came through California in May at the Long Beach Terrace Theater. For this post, I will primarily be referencing the album since listening through headphones gives me a much more detailed picture than listening through a venue’s PA system. However, the live performance held a couple of my all-time favorite musical moments, and I would not do this music justice if I didn’t include those experiences here.
The opening track, “Ancient Land,” is a solid introduction to both the album and the performance. Starting with just some hand percussion and a bowed double bass layered with a synth pad, the image is like an expansive abyss of dark green waiting to be filled with color. This effect was amplified when seeing it live, thanks to the acoustics of the room that blew up the image to a size bigger than any concert I have ever seen. As the song continues, other colors are slowly added, ending with a melody that is doubled between fiddle and flute. The soaring melody leaps and twirls out of the surface, like streaks of green and red dancing above a dark ocean. As the underlying string section swells and falls as the music picks up, the melodic lines appear to ride along the crests of the swells as if they were waves. As soon is this track is over, the vocals come in on “Homeland.” The entrance for this song was particularly powerful live, as it skipped the first repetition of the chorus with all the singers in harmony, and goes straight to the first verse where each singer takes a couple lines on her own. With this approach, the characteristics of each singer’s voice is immediately introduced: the embellished, pale pink curls of Éabha McMahon, the long, graceful strokes of Megan Walsh’s soft yellow voice, and the delicate, dainty, bright yellow lines of Máiréad Carlin.
The first solo is taken by Éabha McMahon singing Moorlough Shore. This easily became my favorite solo of hers of all she’s done with Celtic Woman. The instrumentation is minimal, primarily piano and guitar with light percussion. The synth pad layered over this is the finishing touch that makes it so magical. It softens the sound of the other instruments, making the whole thing one big wall of swirling colors. Add Éabha’s voice to the mix of sound and color, and you get a song I can only describe as hypnotically beautiful.
My favorite solo from Máiréad is Ae Fond Kiss, which introduced me to one of my favorite musical moments of all time, both live and in the studio. On the record, the song is primarily played on piano and acoustic guitar. The piano gives the whole thing a snowy white background. With that in mind, the images this song evoked made me think of what it must look like to watch a figure skater, despite having no memory of what that actually looks like. The vocal melody is relatively simple. There’s a time for flashy technique, and then there’s moments like this that feel so candid; like watching a figure skater skate for herself and the sheer joy of the movements she knows so well, instead of performing to show off. Her singing and the movement of her voice is easy and effortless, but underneath that is the practiced ease that makes it perfectly clear how much work and dedication has gone into her craft. The outline of the melody ends with a curve as the line rises and falls during the last lines of each section of the song. My favorite moment of the record and the concert is the last chorus of this song, where that curve is made bigger to mark the end of the song. Such a big leap is unexpected compared to the rest of the song, but the ease with which she executes it is no different from the earlier choruses.
This record and the accompanying tour have introduced Celtic Woman fans to Megan Walsh, who has joined the group to replace Susan McFadden. What immediately stood out to me upon hearing and seeing Megan’s voice was a certain texture to it. It’s not completely smooth, but it is anything but unpleasant. In fact, it is the exact same texture as former and founding member Lisa Kelly. One of the first solos I heard Megan perform was “Fields of Gold,” one of Lisa’s signature songs from her time in the group. The texture of the two singers’ voices is so similar that when hearing Megan perform the song, it took me right back to the first time I ever heard Celtic Woman’s rendition of it. Needless to say, any new member of Celtic Woman has big shoes to fill, and Megan certainly delivered.
Besides the texture to her voice, Megan’s voice has a way of moving that I really enjoyed. The best example of it can be heard in “Faith’s Song,” which in and of itself sounds like it could easily be perfectly at home at the Grand Ole Opry with some adjustments to the instrumentation. This feels even more so, since Megan’s voice moves in long, languid strokes that look so similar to those of a steel guitar.
Finally, the record and album brought back some of the popular group numbers that any long time fan of Celtic Woman is sure to enjoy. The first of these from the concert’s set was “Amazing Grace,” which starts with the requisite bagpipe melody alone. Once the singers come in for this particular arrangement, the piano part that accompanies them is more like a traditional gospel arrangement than anything I’ve heard from Celtic Woman before. However, what made this arrangement one of my favorite live musical moments of all time comes in as the ensemble strings are slowly brought into the mix. Starting at the higher registers and getting louder as they come down, the effect is like watching night turning into morning. The orchestration becomes increasingly louder, and sitting in the audience at the Terrace Theater, the room was so vibrant that the blues and greens of the strings filled every corner. I was no longer watching an ocean from my seat. I was now floating in it.
“Danny Boy” and “Orinoco Flow” also made reappearances, with the former making use of some really lovely harmonies. For “Orinoco Flow,” the instrumentation was so much bigger compared to those of previous concerts and records. Celtic Woman’s rendition of the song from the performances with the original singers is one of my favorite songs of all time, and this new take on the song was like seeing an old friend who looks better than ever. “Ballroom of Romance” has echoes of “Spanish Lady,” and the leaps and twirls of the singers, violin, and whistles left me feeling like I was missing nothing of any choreography that may have been going on onstage, and was matched only by the instrumental “Tara’s Tunes.” The concert went out with a bang, with a fun and lively rendition of “The Parting Glass” fit well as a cap to an incredible night of music.