Sunday, May 4, 2014

Celtic Woman and Celtic Nights comparisons

This has been an interesting year when it comes to Celtic Music, at least for me and a few others. Two ensembles are on our radar, Celtic Woman, now approaching ten years old, and Celtic Nights, which just finished their third USA tour. There are similarities and differences on stage and off.
Tech. Both shows are stage productions but they differ in scale. Celtic Woman is a high gloss, well exposed, institution in the USA and other areas. They have the budget to do a great deal. Therefore not only do they generate huge amounts for the controlling interests but they do incur a lot of costs in the process. They travel with three buses and a couple of tractor-trailers. Staging, lights, sound, and choreography are complex. Celtic Nights is a lower budget operation. It has at times a simple short riser at the back but at times not. The stage is essentially bare. Sound and lights are excellent though not on the scale that CW operates at. It is enough to accent yet not distract from the artistry of those on stage. They all travel in one bus and tow a small trailer behind them.
Merch. The sale of merchandise is a big deal with Celtic Woman and has been from the start. It is a product of both their PBS affiliation and the desire of EMI and CW LTD to generate as much as possible from their employees. It has produced numerous CD and DVD as well as T-shirts and other trinkets over the years. Prices are typical of a big name group for the items sold and each tour has current merchandise that reflects the current show. Also, some of the individual artists have their CDs available at the merch table during the tour.  Some of these may or may not generate money for the artist themselves. Most of what is sold will do little to fatten the wallet of the artist themselves who are simple employees. Celtic Nights is only now understanding the role of merchandise. Their CD is from the original show three years ago and does not contain any liner notes in the booklet. Sad for the artists that contributed but it is a good CD even if a bit out of date. None of those original artists remain with CN save for Derek Ryan who subbed in briefly again this tour. They tried T-shirts on a small scale this tour but found the demographic at the shows wrong for it. They also offered the solo CDs of three of their artists and I do believe the artists profit to a degree from those sales. A few generic Irish trinkets also graced the table and they did a drawing for a tour of Ireland that as yet they have not yet announced the winner of. Prices are similar to CW but they did offer a smart deal of 4 for $40 on the CDs.
Musicians. Celtic Woman has a long history of having numerous live musicians on stage. They can the orchestra as one might imagine. Can’t be toting them all over! Typical for CW is a bass player, Eoghan O’Neill, lead guitar in Ewan Cowley, Uilleann pipes and other pipes with Tommy Martin, Bagpiper who also does other duties, Anthony Byrne, Piano player Brian McGrane, and two drummers in Ray Fean and Andy Reilly. On this tour some of them sing as well. Most of them do multiple duties and they are as diverse in their gifts as one could imagine. They are all top drawer and a vital part of the touring show ensemble. All are very likeable people too. Celtic Nights cans most of their music. They have little choice on a limited budget. Their two musicians this tour were piper and guitarist Stevie O’Connor, and fiddler Ben Gunnery. While small in number they are big on talent. Stevie is a student of Tommy’s and it shows. Ben can shred on the fiddle every bit as wonderfully as the CW violinist although of course he does not have the look or the choreography to go with it. Speaking of which, the Celtic Woman violinist, Máiréad Nesbitt is a member of their front four (formerly front five) and is the sole remaining original girl in the show. She is incomparable. It is the sole musician CW has had in the front row. Both Ben and Máiréad are huge focal points of energy in their respective shows and get the audiences jazzed.
Dancers. Until Believe dancing, except by the marvelous fiddler, was not part of Celtic Woman. That having been said they have had some choreography in some pieces that could be viewed as dancing. But it was not until CW brought in Craig Ashurst, premier Riverdance dancer, that CW incorporated dancing into the show. This year they added a second lad, Nicholas, to make it a pair of dancers who do double duty as vocalists. This year’s show incorporates a great deal more dance into it including a solo dance/percussion bit late in the first act which is a hoot. Celtic Nights has always had as part of the show a fair amount of dancing. It is operated by GFD (Gaelforce Dance) which has long supplied shows with top notch dancers. So, a small troupe (this year 2 male and 3 female) dancers are part of the show and have several dance routines in it. Dancers this tour were Gavin, Aidan, Leanne, Heather, and Ciara. I found at both shows that the dancing really lights up an audience especially the female attendees. Dance is a part of the culture just as song and musicianship so it is appropriate it be included.
Vocalists. Here is a major difference in the shows. Celtic Woman front row has always been exclusively female. Well, it IS called Celtic WOMAN! It went from four vocalists down to three after spring 2010. In that loss they, in my opinion, lost some of their better harmonies. That does not mean the show lacks but it is an element that is obvious to a long time fan especially in the loss of a lower register voice to broaden and deepen harmonies. The current lineup is Susan McFadden, Lynn Hilary, and Máiréad Carlin. All are higher end soprano although Susan closer to mid. Susan and MC have tremendous power and MC has quite a dynamic range. Lynn is a crystal clear and delicate voice.  Throughout Celtic Woman history there have been a long line of sterling vocalists, each of whom have brought their own unique gifts. They include Deirdre Shannon, Meav, Orlagh Fallon, Hayley Westenra, Alex Sharpe, Lisa Kelly, Chloe Agnew, Lisa Lambe, and the current three. Change has been inevitable if not an annual thing since year one.  Celtic Nights is a mixed ensemble, three male and three female. This year we had Derek Moloney most of the tour along with Will Mulvey and Gregor Firth. These gents are great stage performers and nice guys. They complement each other very well.  They have a nice harmony bit in Auld Triangle and some solo bits as well as ensemble pieces. Front row girls this tour were Rebekah Robertson, Rebecca Winckworth , and Éabha (pronounced like Eva) McMahon. The latter two worked together in Anuna. It is an excellent blend of a high range soprano, mid range, and full on alto that produces the best harmonies I have heard since the four vocalist days of CW. Bekah is the spokesperson for the show and also serves as office staffer with GFD. Éabha is a voice you simply must hear. It fills a room and is the most unique and haunting voice I have heard among CW/CN female artists. She has incredible stage presence and poise for such a young lady. Closest to her in voice from CW would be the same haunting quality of Orla Fallon.
Ensemble vs. ensemble, song versus song.  They are both quality troupes in every respect. But there is a clear line in CW between front row and supporting cast. In CN there is really no front or back row. Ensemble pieces run the gamut from high energy to quieter. There are only a couple places where we can make a direct comparison this tour, Danny Boy, and The Parting Glass. Danny Boy is traditional and every show has it. In CW it is purely the front four in harmony. It has always been lovely though in my opinion never as lovely as the four vocalist version of spring 2010. They added choreography this ear they did not need to do. In CN it was done as a solo either by Derek Moloney or Rebecca Winckworth. Both were different but very lovely. Honestly you just can’t go wrong with this song. Parting Glass is very different between the two groups. In CW it is full on ensemble with every element in play. It starts somber but them morphs into a huge piece. It is very uplifting. The CN version has Éabha doing the lead and it is pure vocals by their six vocalists. It is solemn, stirring, and very emotive. It is her signature piece. Two very different interpretations and both well done. CN did some of the songs we heard from CW over the years, Caledonia (A Rebekah solo), and Isle Of Hope (lovely courtesy Ms. McMahon) to name a couple. They did them well. Bekah’s signature is Caledonia and I found I liked her connection with it better than the CW one. She is, after all, from Scotland.  Both Celtic Woman and Celtic Nights are marvelous nights of entertainment with top drawer artists.
Philosophy, pricing, and fan relations. And here we get to some touchy subjects. The Celtic Woman philosophy is big city (NYC) mentality. It is all about the bottom line. Who the artists are don’t matter. Who the fans are don’t matter. It is pure, cold numbers. The artists are all replaceable employees rather like pieces in a machine and the fans are simply butts in seats. I do not believe the artists have adopted that same view, especially after first night Atlanta Believe recording 2011 at The Fox. It matters to them. We matter to them to a certain degree. An audience has a better chance of being a good one if there are more familiar faces in it. For the bean counters they could not care less what the energy level of a show is only that the place is as full as possible. Over the years there have been numerous changes in relations for the positive but they were mostly based on who was running the tour. David Downes has done well paying attention to what fans like and finding suitable replacements for vacancies. Mr. Kavangh seems to have backed off a bit in his hostility toward familiar faces and that was evident in his demeanor and comments in Dublin after the Christmas show last August.  But it has been Madstone that has been consistently hostile in its pricing and policies. Maggie has been trying to kiss up to the artists and a few select female fans and the reverse is true as well. But the majority out here aren’t buying it. The show is priced at what it is now because of the charts and consistent sales. From a venue and Ticketmaster perspective prices are in line with what one might expect. But it is the PBS connection, pricing, and seat availability that have changed the past couple years that show a certain level or hostility. Gone are the best seats in house to go with paid meetings. It’s a crap shoot. Gone too are autographs at meetings and in place of it are a simple photo op with the front four. Best thing about all of that is the barrier of a table is gone and the girls are free to hug if they so desire. But these meetings are typically overpriced and rushed to go with a mediocre seat. And, as I found out, you are not assured your photos will turn out. Some of these meet & greet packages cost in the hundreds of dollars yet meetings can be held in a hallway, stairwell, loading dock, mop closet, etc. which is very disrespectful to the artist and to those forking out the money. It is a multi-million dollar operation annually and an entire venue is rented. You cannot afford a proper room? They also disrespect the artist by holding the meetings within minutes of them having to take the stage. That is when they should be warming up and focusing on the show. It is done for a reason, to give the excuse to rush it. As for the photo itself, mine in Denver this tour did not turn out. When I mentioned that to the tour manager in Colorado Springs the response I got should say it all to you who buy the meetings. “I’m not a professional photographer. I’m doing this as a favor. Good luck.” That from the rather grumpy Sett who is only a notch short of the dismal Mitch from Madstine in cold and prickly. Once again, you are a multi-million dollar annual profit center at CW, you can jolly well afford a good photographer and a polite demeanor for the money paid. But again, Madstone does not care. If you won’t be foolish enough to fork out the money for the dog and pony show, someone else will. For me that means I will discontinue meet & greets. They are simply NOT worth it. Prices vary from $150 to $600 per person, in some cases requiring a pair be bought, for these meetings with a ticket. Denver and Springs allowed us to acquire the meetings stand alone but they were still far too expensive for what you got. Some now buy two tickets to get a good seat AND the meeting.  It is your right to do so and Madstone laughs all the way to the bank.As a further example of Madstone hostility you can look back to the two recordings last year. South Bend gave less than 72 hours notice. The Christmas recording gave a bit less than three weeks for peak travel season in Europe. Plans for recordings happen months in advance. There is no reason to delay letting people now other than pure hostility to the familiar faces. Make no mistake about it, Madstone does NOT want you there at recordings or shows. 
Contrast this with Celtic Nights. There is no PBS. There is no Madstone. Their record label and promoter is CAMI (Columbia) which is more fan friendly.They filled their venues as well as CW did and without the exposure. You go online and buy a ticket from the venue or Ticketmaster first come first served on best seats. Most were in the neighborhood of $40. Michael Durkan’s philosophy is one of bringing a high end show to smaller communities and venues. It works. Even at common venues this tour like Popejoy in Albuquerque they were as sold out as CW. Meetings are full cast and free after the show. Photos, autographs, chat, and no one walks away unhappy with the result. At Popejoy there were 1900 or so people. 200 or thereabouts took advantage and stayed after. It took about forty minutes before the lobby cleared. So, to limit to a handful , limited time, at a high price makes no sense unless you intentionally are hostile. We had marvelous meetings and it is huge bang for the buck.
Fan and artist relations. If you did not know the artist as a friend before they became well known you will never become their friend after. That is the philosophy of artist management. In some cases an artist may agree but in many cases they may not. It is an artificial line drawn by the ones who control the artists. The only other place where you see such a line between a profession and the general public is politics. The higher ups place their charges on some other plane than the rest of us. at no time have I ever gotten the impression the artists themselves feel that way. To them it is simply what they do for a living. Yes, some artists are more comfortable than others with avid fans. Some prefer that barrier while others will cross it at every opportunity. As I and others have always said, contact is up to the artists and not the fans. But at times you wonder if management wishes that isolation simply so they can enjoy the perks of hanging with these people alone and not diluting their time with the unwashed masses. I do believe that friendship between a fan and artist IS possible but it takes an extraordinary amount of trust on the part of the artist for that to happen. It is also a very fragile thing easily disrupted so one has to proceed with caution. In some cases also the artist may not like attacks on their management and take it personally when that is not the case. What you get from an artists from the stage, at formal meetings, at chance meetings, and on line is a gift from them. None of us are entitled to any sort of relationship with any of them. When they grant it then count it as a great blessing and cherish it. I am grateful for what I have received from the various artists of both groups. If anything more comes of it that is up to them. 

There are other things behind the scenes that were not quite so pleasant at CN but not enough to affect the average concert goer. Their tour manager, Alan Whelan, was very accommodating on the tour at times and reminded me of the days of Bubba Dixon with CW. There is still a bit of insider industry elitism in both managements but it is not as pronounced at CN as it is at CW and that is due largely to Mr. Durkan. I do recommend both groups as shows. I recommend CN over CW for the dollar conscious. But to a person I recommend all the artists past and present of both. In the end it is they who have touched us and brought us their gifts and hard work.  It is up to each of us to determine how much we are willing to put up with from the non-artistic elements of a show. I will always feel at least some need to be there up close to support those who have inspired me and touched the lives of so many through song, dance, and instrument. Now I am off to see Lisa Kelly with Chloe in their first real performance since leaving CW. It is what we fans do.

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