Preface (with a little self indulgence):
It is fairly common knowledge among the violin world that as young students progress through their training, they are told they must focus on one discipline; typically traditional or classical, if they hope to master their trade. Some will ask “why” and attempt to master more than one, but only a few will succeed. Máiréad, as we all know, is one of these few. Now she has mastered a third genre: rock! I recorded a tribute to her diversity back in Christmas of ’14. This may be self indulgence on my part, but it was totally inspired by Máiréad’s rendition of Carol of the Bells; one of the many tunes where she seamlessly combines classical and traditional (it also has relevance later in the review). It inspired me to attempt the same combining classical and rock. Moscapoet tweeted her the link to the Youtube posting and she said she liked it. Little did I know that she would be taking her own journey into the genre two and a half years later. Did I serve in inspiring her to experiment with rock? I very seriously doubt it. But it’s fun to wonder if. For those who haven’t heard my tune and interested in doing so, do a Youtube search of “Rockin’ the Bells”.
Self indulgence aside, enter Rocktopia!, Máiréad’s venture into the world of rock! It’s a show combining classical pieces with classic rock from the late sixties to the eighties. It’s the Brainchild of Rob Evan of Trans-Siberian Orchestra fame and features, along with Rob, vocalists Tony Vincent, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nicole, and Ximena Borges. Rounding out the band is guitarist Tony “Bruno” Rey, bassist Mat Fieldes, and drummer Alex Alexander with Máiréad replacing original violinist, David Carpenter.
Rock artists covered include the Beatles, Led Zepplin (2 selections), Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Journey, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd (2 selections), U2 (which seemed to be Máiréad’s favorite, but then they’re Irish), Patti Smith, The Who, Foreigner, Styx, Elton John and Queen (2 selections). The songs from these artists either Morph from or morph into Classical pieces from such composers as Strauss, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Copeland, Beethoven, and of course, Nesbitt!
When I first learned of Rocktopia and Máiréad’s involvement, I immediately went to the website to check ticket availability. I was initially excited that they would be playing Atlanta on the Thursday before the Saturday that Lisa Kelly’s annual “Voices of Ireland” show would be held. As most know, this has become a weekend event where loyal Celtic Woman fans congregate and share a bit of fellowship for a brief period. I always take a few days of vacation for that. But alas, the good seats were already taken. However, they were also playing Jacksonville Wednesday, and there were still front row seats available. I snagged a couple since it would be on the way. Last year, we had gotten the cheap “lawn seats” for Lisa Kelly’s show, but our Fellow Floridian Celtic Woman friends, Eric and Linda Sterling, had extra seats right in front of Lisa, which they offered to us. I decided I would buy them tickets to the Jacksonville Rocktopia show in repayment of this kindness. Later, I also decided to go ahead and spring for cheap balcony seats in Atlanta as we’d be in town anyway.
In the interim of all this, the founder of a group that Steph and I belong to, the Celtic Norse Heritage Society, which raises money for scholarships for kids to take lessons on traditional Celtic instruments as well as Celtic dance, decided she’d like to make Máiréad an honorary member as she was a fan of hers as well and felt Máiréad exemplified the roll model for those we sponsor. She had seen all the photos we had with Máiréad over the years on Facebook. She asked if we knew her and if we could make that happen. I answered: “Well….to an extent….as a fan. I’ll see what we can do”. I got word to Máiréad about this, and she got word back to me that she would be honored, but didn’t have a lot of time. She said we could possibly meet after sound check in Jacksonville and said she’d coordinate it with Maggie Seidel, her manager. So we show up at the artist load in door at the Florida Theater. Of course there is security present, so we ask to see Maggie. They call over the head of security, and he said he’d get Maggie for us. He returns with Maggie and we explain to her in the presence of the head of security that we were here to see Máiréad and what it was about. Maggie said she hadn’t heard, but she’d get Máiréad. We were puzzled, but as it turned out, when I had gotten word back to Máiréad in response to her initial message that our founder wouldn’t be able to make it, there was confusion and she thought that the meeting was cancelled. She sent word back that she was in the middle of getting ready for the show and asked if we could do it after the signing. This is what I had initially expected as I knew she was giving extra attention to her loyal fans after the signing at previous shows. But it was an honor that she’d consider granting us a private meeting! Plus, the exchange was quite possibly instrumental in us being allowed into the show!
After this, we walk a block to an Italian restaurant and have a wonderful dinner with the Sterlings. Now, in our capacity as members of the Celtic Norse Heritage Society, we decided I would wear a kilt with Steph wearing a matching “mini-kilt” as we typically do for such occasions. Because it was Rocktopia, we decided on our “rocker” kilts; solid black and adorned with metal studs and chains. As we qued up in line to go into the theater, we noticed security scanning everyone with handheld metal detectors. We gave each other a wary look. When it was our turn, the security guy was flabbergasted. How was he going to pass us through? He called over the head of security. He said: “Oh they’re fine. They know one of the band members.” Whew! Thanks again, Máiréad!
The next night, we, along with our son Aaron, got to share the show with a handful of treasured Celtic Woman Friends: Scott Manke, Michael Brown, Tony Picallo, Tom Fox, and all the way from Germany, Karsten Kuntz in Atlanta! In Jacksonville, the orchestra was smaller and there was no choir. In Atlanta, it was a full orchestra and a massive choir backing the band. This, of course, made the dynamics of the performance different each night. There are positives to both, though I thought Máiréad was a little bit masked at times by the larger orchestra. Seeing a show from the front row is the way to do it if you can as you can “feel” that connection with the performer. But the balcony did have it’s advantage in getting to see the full light show effect from that vantage point. Of course in Jacksonville we took time after the cast signing to do our presentation to her. The Sterlings graciously did not want to infringe as they knew what we were planning, but Máiréad insisted they take a photo with her. She does appreciate her fans. In Atlanta, we tried to hang back a bit to give Scott, Tony, and Karsten more time with her, especially since they traveled so far and it would be their only show (Mike and Tom also had previous shows), but Máiréad treated us all warmly. I think Aaron was a little star struck. I don’t blame him.
The show was absolutely spectacular! It was so exciting to see Máiréad in something fresh and new. The fact that I spent my youth as a metal guitarist, I’m sure, boosted my elation in this case! And Máiréad appeared every bit as ecstatic performing it. She looked like she was having a blast!
Rob Evan – One of the originators, but also one of the male vocalists. He is equally proficient at both classic tenor and rock styles of delivery. His voice, to me at least, is very reminiscent of Meatloaf. He handled the classical pairing with Ximena, but he can also belt out a mean Roger Daltrey.
Tony Vincent – The other male vocalist. A contender on “the Voice”, Tony possesses the power to excel in the classic rock anthems. His rendition of “We Are the Champions” by Queen will give you chills. I’m no singer, but I certainly can imagine that filling the shoes of the late, great Freddie Mercury is a Daunting task!
Kimberly Nichole – A finalist on “the Voice”, Kimberly has some impressive credits under belt that can only be achieved with a voice like hers. Her renditions of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” are dripping with soul. On a side note, it was documented on a video clip from Rocktopia’s Facebook page that Patti Smith was walking by as they were rehearsing “Because the Night”. She stopped in to check it out and said it was the best rendition she’s heard….this from PATTI SMITH! Kimberly was overcome being paid such a compliment from one she so looks up to. Kimberly, I know how that feels. See paragraph one.
Chloe Lowery – Also one of the vocalists for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, this girl has some pipes! Her rendition of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” blew me away! We gave her a standing O for that one in Jacksonville. She looked surprised. Did no other venue audience do that? Well, she deserved it! And gentlemen, she’s not hard to look at either!
Ximena Borges – Classical soprano vocalist. She, of course, handles the classical female vocal. She has a very powerful operatic voice. I’m not much of an aficionado of that particular style. But I can say that her style was pleasantly unique on Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir”. It worked really well! Another side note, unlike his old man, my son, Aaron has a preference for brunettes. He now has a crush on Ximena.
Tony “Bruno” Rey – Rocktopia’s guitarist, Tony is of special note to us. Steph and I were fans of his “Hair Metal” band “Saraya” back when we were dating. Since those days, he’s cut off the hair and gotten involved in many impressive projects outside the realm of metal. His performance ranges from the big open riffs of the ‘70s to the tricky ornaments of the ‘80s such as the two handed tapping technique popular (and really, kind of over done) in those days. For an example of that if you’re uninitiated (and care), see the aforementioned “Rockin’ the Bells at about 1:04 (I know, I’m self indulging again). Hmmm……I wonder if you could incorporate the two hand tapping technique on violin. I might have to try that on mine. I’ll have to learn to play it first. Anyway, in my opinion, Tony is the luckiest member of the cast. He gets to trade riffs with Máiréad!
Mat Fieldes – Rocktopia bassist, his credits range from the more impressive names in rock to Broadway to orchestra. As the bassist, he doesn’t get the flashy parts like the vocalists, guitarist, or violinist for that matter. But trust me, if you don’t have a solid bassist, you don’t have a good band. Mat held the groove impeccably.
Alex Alexander – Rocktopia drummer who has also worked with the really big names of rock as well as on film scores. He’s proficient in about all the genres you can think of. Of course you need a drummer at this level of proficiency as the time keeper on a production like Rocktopia.
Máiréad Nesbitt – Well, I’m not going to waste your time with all of her accomplishments as if you’re a member here, you already know them. She excels in this new role as well. She doesn’t run around and do spins like she did in Celtic Woman. But she knows how to carry herself as a rock star on stage. With the “rock god” stance and aggressive expressions (when she’s not smiling), she embodies the role. In rock, it’s important to have improvisational skills. She has that in spades. She seamlessly blends rock with classical every bit as well as she blended Celtic with classical. She does her own “Hallowed Fire” in the production. And even though it’s a slow air in a show that’s billed as a “rock show”, it’s still a crowd favorite, as well it should be.
So they’re on stage performing the last show of this tour as I write this. But the Fall tour is coming. They’ve already posted the first date, and Máiréad has said she plans to be on it. If they come to your area, or even if they don’t and you have to travel a bit, do yourself a favor and see this show. Yeah, I know. A lot of you on here are not rock fans. Hell, a few of you have told me you outright hate it. But come on. I promise you they’re not going to accost your ears with Norwegian Death Metal. These are songs we all heard on the radio growing up. It will give you a feeling of nostalgia. This in addition to the feeling you get when you see Máiréad on stage regardless of the genre. Give it a shot! You won’t be sorry.
Chloe's rousing performance of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love is"https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXq_1F0zG8M