Right on the heels of the amazing Saturday night show in Peachtree, I attended the Sunday Celtic Woman 5pm show in Houston.
First I had to make the trip from Georgia to Texas for the show. I never flew in an airplane until I started traveling to CW shows, and I have become of two minds when it comes to flying in airplanes. The flight out to the destination is always filled with anticipation, a feeling almost of adventure; but the return flight is always something I just want to get over with so I can be home again. This is why you rarely see any mention of my return flights in my show reviews. But this was different. For the first time I would be leaving a show, and flying TO a show in another city for the next day. Even in my heydey of going to bunches of shows on tours, I had never flown to shows on consecutive days before.
In any case, after leaving the Hampton Inn Peachtree, I drove to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson. I had misread my boarding pass when I had printed it and didn't realize my flight left about a half-hour earlier than I had expected. It was very fortunate that I had left for the airport as early as I had; I got through a fairly long line at security and arrived at the United gate less than 5 minutes before boarding began. I hadn't gotten any sleep during the overnight, and I was so exhausted I was glad to collapse into my window seat and sleep. I actually slept about an hour before waking up with a stuffed up head and sneezes. My otherwise uneventful flight arrived at IAH and I drove the forty minutes back home. I took a bunch of vitamin C and laid down; I had about 6 hours before Roy and I were to meet for our pre-show dinner. I got perhaps 4 hours sleep, and arrived to a massive downtown traffic jam near the venue. Roy and I still met up with plenty of time to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe beside the venue. Since it was his birthday, the Hard Rock provided him with a free birthday sundae and a chorus of "Happy Birthday!" from the whole place. Then it was time to head next door.
The Revention Music Center (formerly the Houston House of Blues) is nestled in the Theater District of downtown Houston. It sits in a very oversized city block that also contains several restaurants and a huge underground parking garage. I had been here the previous year for a Lindsey Sterling concert, so I knew my way around. The stage faces a parquet floor with no permanent seats (there would be rows of chairs set out for the concert). In the back was an elevated dais with a bunch of tables for dining. A wrap-around balcony had about a dozen rows of seats. The walls were of black material used to reflect the sound back. The stage was rather high, easily four feet high but about average width and very deep; it was strange seeing the piano in the middle. One thing I really like with this venue is that the bathrooms and drinking fountains are actually inside the auditorium itself, so there is no long trek required to take care of these needs. Our seats were fourth row, nearly exact center. In some ways these seats were better than front row because of the high stage. While waiting for the show to start we were amazed to find that there were no other fan community people here except us. We did attract some attention due to our fan shirts (especially me with my bright yellow Fiddler Crossing shirt) and I had quite a discussion with the two ladies to my right until the lights dimmed.
(Please pardon me if this set list order isn't quite right. I didn't make any notes and had to do this from memory).
"When You Go" is one of my favorite songs from the new album and it really is an excellent way to open the show; it took only about a minute for Mairead Nesbitt to find Roy and then me... "Siuil a Run" was apparently the first time that many of the people in this audience had heard Eabha McMahon's voice, because when she started singing there was a gentle gap down the row to my right and somewhere on my left I heard a whispered "Oh!"; these people would get a world of enlightenment about her voice before this night was over... I always liked M.C.'s vocals in "Ride On" and the harmony with Eabha was very good, but unfortunately it was here that I first noticed the limitations in the sound in this venue; the bass was unnecessarily heavy and the rest of the sound was at much too low of a volume, and this makes no sense as this venue was literally made for concert acoustics... "Whole Of the Moon!!" This was a song that I'd been listening to off and on for almost 20 years that I never thought Celtic Woman would cover; Susan's performance was pretty and I absolutely LOVED the background graphic of stars that they used... but... I had a disconcerting moment while the guy choir sang where it absolutely did not sound like guys voices, that they must have canned some female vocals to add to the men singing, a Milli-vanilliesque implication that I did not like at all; later in the song I decided that yes it really is guys voices, they must be the highest tenors ever born (and the performance later by tenor Glen seemed to bear that out)... "THE BUTTERFLY!!" She did this song at my very first show way back in 2007 and here she was doing it again in 2016; I'm glad they kept that part where she lets each musician have their own little solo; standing ovations from Roy and I were answered with a huge smile and a wave... A video clip of a stunning waterfall with some fine Irish flute reminded me immediately of the dazzling "Sigma" that Chloe had done for her long-ago DVD, but here it introduced Eabha singing "How Can I Keep From Singing?"; her fine and haunting voice - in my opinion, the finest alto in the musical world - was only dampened by the lack of volume from the speakers; no matter, I was overjoyed to hear her live again!... I've heard "Amazing Grace" enough the last few years that I didn't think I'd find anything new here, but I sure did: the real value of adding Eabha is the contrast in vocals between her and M.C. which was most noticeable here; as they harmonized you could hear each of them separately and yet hear the harmony of the two of them; in this one case the lack of volume from the sound was a plus as it made it easier to discern this amazing contrast... I've liked "I See Fire" since I first heard Mairead Carlin sing it on the CD; and here the video clip of the massive flames was truly dramatic; an absolute feast for both the eyes and ears.
Except during "Amazing Grace" the sound had been inferior throughout the first half; it was as if the sound guys had set their board and then gone off for drinks. Lighting, on the other hand, was excellent, possibly the best I'd seen at a CW show in years. I really liked the video display they were using, for certain songs like "Whole Of the Moon" and "I See Fire" it made for fine visuals that truly augmented the music. Since the show had a start time of 5 o'clock, I had held no illusions about how the crowd would be; I assumed it would fit directly into the geriatric zone, but this was beyond pathetic. There were a few isolated heartbeats besides Roy's and mine, but for the most part the girls were playing to a cemetery during the first act. One thing that I will give this crowd credit for is that at the end of each song they did cheer loudly, but during the songs themselves the audience was almost entirely uninvolved. I was wishing and hoping they'd come around during the second half; I hear sometimes a prayer will do...
Ok straight on with it... "Skyrim" hadn't really moved me when I'd heard it on the CD, but it was really great live! Bravo Mairead!!... If you've already seen this new tour and you know me, you probably knew that I'd squeal with delight when I noticed during "Orinoco Flow" that they kept those little one-second solo parts for each of the vocalists; even after all these years I still really love when the Celtic Woman does this song... As M.C. described the execution of the Irish patriots, being the history buff that I am, I thought for a moment of Lexington Common in 1775, where eight American patriots were shot down by a British volley for daring to defy The Crown; was this not much the same? The entire performance was truly moving, and was followed by "O Ro Se do Bheatha Bhaile"... an excellent "Sometimes A Prayer Will Do", almost as if this song were written for Susan; it just shows how you get the best results when you pick songs that match your singer and not the other way around... Susan then introduced choirguy Glen and piano player Brian as they did a song together; Glen's voice is an extremely high tenor but I didn't recognize the song... "Hills Of Ireland" was awesome as Roy and I started clapping along at the point when the tempo changed and suddenly most of the venue came to life and clapped along! A few dozen people joined us in a well-earned standing ovation... "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room" was special to me; I had listened to this song a number of times as I had made a well-received graphic of this song less than a week before; her exquisite vocals were especially beautiful on the high notes when she sings "I close my eyes..." and at the end I rose - the only one in the house - to give her a standing ovation and got a gentle smile and a nod back; thank you, dear Mairead... the beautiful "Walk Beside Me" had been the subject of several interesting discussions that I'd had with multiple people while I was in Peachtree, plus the song has a personal meaning to me because the subject of the song was paraphrased in a saying that my very first girlfriend had always kept on her bedroom wall; thank you so much, Eabha and company... "BAGPIPE FINALE!!!" Yes, they kept it in the show!! Quite a few of the people in our vicinity recorded Anthony on their phones; although it was distracting having people in front of me doing it, this one time I can't really blame them as you don't get to see such a performance every day, and Roy and I came to our feet as the soloists stepped to the foot of the stage to take their bows, while the rest of the crowd waited until the piped in voice said "Give it up for CELTIC WOMAN!" but regardless of how it was made to happen, finally the whole place was on it's feet.
Before heading out to try the buses, we talked with a couple seated a row ahead of us - I found a kindred spirit in the wife who lamented the missing "Jimi Hendrix Finale" of years gone by, and found sympathy from her when I told her that was my favorite "song" in the world, much as I do love the Bagpipe Finale. Anyway, at the buses we first encountered Eabha; it seemed she didn't remember us at all until Roy mentioned Celtic Nights, but I was just happy to see her again. Susan came out a few minutes later with Anthony; while Roy bantered with Anthony I was surprised when Susan came right over to me and offered me a hug; we talked for a moment. We also got a chance to talk with Ray - the ultimate ambassador of Celtic Woman - who thanked us for our support. We didn't get to see the Maireads, and Roy grumbled for a moment about that as we departed, but I reminded him that he and I had no cause for complaint after the weekend that we'd had. Which was true.
We had no energy to do any kind of post-show dinner, so we said our goodnights as we headed out to our respective vehicles. Another year of tours for me, brought to an end.
CELTIC WOMAN RETROSPECTIVE
Ten years of attending Celtic Woman shows provides a broad lens for viewing the development of Celtic Woman as a whole. Also, finding an affinity with each of the soloists helps. I speak from a position of strength here: it no longer bothers me that my all-time favorite, Chloe, is gone from the group, and Mairead Carlin can be thanked for thoroughly winning me over with her charm, both in person and from the stage, so that the hole left by Chloe's departure has been filled. For this tour, more than on any of my previous ones, I had no real favorite. And that was not through lack of caring but from finding nearly equal parts to cherish in all of these ladies, almost like a proud father loving all his daughters. I do not claim to be totally unbiased, but I think, more than ever before, I can be considered truly objective.
How does this new show rate among those past? It is never fair to rate tours as a whole against each other, until enough time has passed to allow the immediate feelings to die down and for a true impartiality to develop.
But I can compare the strengths and weaknesses of different characteristics of the tours. I'll start with one strength: they unloaded some songs whose time had come and gone. Much as I love The Parting Glass, You Raise Me Up, The New Ground, and Isle of Hope Isle of Tears, it was good to make room for new songs. Whether the new songs are as good as the ones they're replacing is unimportant; to add so much new blood was a needed move that I'm glad they weren't afraid to make. In fact I think they didn't go far enough, and there is... one... song... will... they... please... ugh, what am I saying, it'll never get taken out of the set list. It diminishes me to complain about that which I cannot change, so I'll refrain. In any case, I'll give them kudos for making the set list changes that they did make.
Among the weaknesses, I will excuse the sound since the problems there may have been unique to my venue. To me the most glaring issue was a lack of raw energy... or, perhaps, raw emotion. To be sure, the energy was discernible in M.N.'s work as much as at any time in the past. But, when it comes to the vocalists, although each song matched the singer perfectly, it almost seemed that the show was constructed on a song-by-song basis, with each song operating in a vacuum, with an inadequate consideration of rousing an audience to a fever pitch at just the right times and to keep the momentum going when built up. There are places in any show where the slower, softer songs work, but I think there were just a few too many of those in this show. I've thought a lot about this since the 2014 Tour which I feel suffered a similar, though more severe, problem.
On the other hand, the vocals, taken as just vocals, were the absolute best Celtic Woman has ever produced - and it's not even close. And it's not that Eabha, M.C., and Susan are necessarily better singers than any of the earlier members. It's that the incredible vocal range offered by these three ladies makes possible harmonies that could never be done before. I was there on the tours in '07 and '08 when they had Orla working with the varied sopranos, and even then the vocals were never this excellent. And consider: the current lineup is understaffed compared to those earlier incarnations. Because of their incredible range, the 2016 vocalists can do more with three singers than the 2007 crew did with four. Wow!
Today's retrospective was mostly analyzing how the new tour fits in with the others. It was not meant to show how all the tours fit together. Someday, when the time is right, I will do a more thorough examination. For now, let this stand, and bide.
As I have done the last few years, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my reviews. If they have brought these shows to life in your heart and made you feel that you were there by my side, then they have served their purpose well. Take care, dear friends, til next time. "Don't walk without me, I might need you tomorrow/Walk right beside me, Be the real friend I need."
Celtic Woman Forever!