Thursday, May 1, 2008

Celtic Woman

The Celtic Men are doing pretty well in their quest to win the NBA championship, but the basketball stars' success can't match that of Celtic Woman.

Celtic Woman - a supergroup of four Irish singers and one fiddler, backed by other musicians - is an international juggernaut created by David Downes, musical director of "Riverdance" for the U.S. and European touring companies as well as on Broadway.

It is "Riverdance" without the mind-numbingly repetitive dancing, but it keeps the Irish music that was so much a part of that show's international success.

Just as "Lord of the Dance" capitalized on the success of "Riverdance," Celtic Woman has built on and surpassed Downes'wildest expectations, he said in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Look at the stats:

* The group has released three albums, and they were the No.1-, No. 2- and No. 3-selling albums in Billboard's year-end issue listing the top-selling world-music albums of 2007.

* Since debuting in March 2005, its PBS special has aired more than 3,400 times on 316 PBS stations, and each album has gone gold or platinum. The group's debut album held the No.1 spot on Billboard's World Music chart for more than 90 consecutive weeks.

* Its latest DVD, 2006's "A New Journey: Live From Slane Castle, Ireland," has been certified double platinum. Take that, Kevin Garnett, Larry Bird and Bill Russell.

The idea of Celtic Woman germinated from seeing the music of "Riverdance" connect with American and international audiences, Downes said. (Lynn Hilary, one of the newest members of the group, was a featured soloist in "Riverdance.")

In the three years the show has been around, Downes said he made the latest concert tour "more theatrical" and "more choreographed" than when the women first hit the stage.

"When I go to shows, I want to come out [like] being hit in the head," he said. "In a good way." Hilary, a classically trained soprano from Dublin, joined the other women in the group's successful fall 2007 tour.

The offer to be in the ensemble was "too good to turn down," because Hilary had seen how the group had become so "successful, taking America by storm." (It will take Salt Lake City by storm - a four-night run at Kingsbury Hall, the most of any location during the current tour.)

"Lots of people are of Irish descent, and they like to connect to their roots," Hilary said of the group's success in America. "It's healing music."

Downes said Hilary didn't even need to audition for the show.

"A great voice is a great voice," he said. "The important thing to me is not to have five 'American Idol' singers with big, showy voices. It's more of a classical soprano sound. There are very few of them around, even in Ireland."

What has Downes the most excited about this tour is the opening act, The High Kings, a group of Irish men he recruited to replicate the success of Celtic Woman - only this time with Adam's apples.

"A lot of us had thoughts of old, classic Irish songs [that had been] ruined in Irish bars," Downes said. "Let's look afresh at these songs."

The High Kings are Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy, Martin Furey and Darren Holden. The group has a great lineage: Clancy is the son of famous Irish singer Bobby Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.

"People are really responding to them," Downes said. After all, behind every High King is a Celtic Woman.

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