Masters of their trade, the Celtic Tenors blew away their Clayton audience with opera, Celtic folk songs and even a country number.
I attended partly because I knew they would be good and partly because my fiance was in town that weekend and I wanted to treat him to a beautiful facet of a town I’ve come to love. When I wasn’t obsessively scribbling notes, I held his hand in the dark.
The Celtic Tenors were all smiles when they walked on stage, and they wasted no time hitting the first notes of “Tell Me Ma.”
“She is handsome, she is pretty/ She’s the belle of Belfast City/ She is a courting one, two, three/ Please won’t you tell me who is she?”
They sang the chorus louder each time until they filled The Clayton Center with their masculine Irish voices. As one sang the melody, the others harmonized; then they traded places. One softly shook a tiny maraca; another strummed a guitar. I tapped my foot.
The rich passion of James Nelson, the keen control of Daryl Simpson and the wild energy of Matthew Gilsenan’s melded and swept command over the audience, which laughed, cried, clapped and even sang along. No matter what they sang, the Celtic Tenors expertly directed the mood.
Confidence comes to a performer over many shows and years, and the Celtic Tenors certainly have experience. They have sung around the world, from New York to Shanghai, and each has a background in opera. The playful way they vary their harmonies and expertly stay together in entrances and crescendos speaks of countless hours studying their art and singing as a group.
It shows in the happy, authoritative way they sing. They hit the first lusty note of a song exactly together and often launch into the next piece before the final notes of the piano have died away.
Not only do they sing expertly, they also connect well with their audience. As Nelson introduced himself, he said, “So sorry to hear about the Wolfpack today,” which brought disappointed chuckles from the audience. (Earlier in the day, the Wolfpack had lost to Duke in the ACC tournament.)
Simpson introduced himself with “My name is Daryl. It’s a pleasure to be here with y’aaaall,” exaggerating the decidedly Southern contraction. The audience laughed.
Next they sang a rhythmic “On the Road to Dublin” and followed with “Whiskey in the Jar.” Marshall, my fiance, leaned over and whispered along to the lyrics. I grinned and remembered how he took a post in Dublin during his decade in the U.S. Marines Corps.
As they sang “Red Haired Mary,” the audience clapped. It was lighthearted, and they whistled one verse. But when they sang “The Dutchman,” about a man who has grown old and forgetful, sniffing broke out.
“Let us go to the banks of the ocean/ Where the walls rise above the Zuiderzee/ Long ago I used to be a young man/ And dear Margaret remembers that for me.”
I nearly cried too.
One of the most fascinating numbers they sang was a Scottish-Gaelic song, performed a capella. It was eerie, mysterious, rapid. Slow, solemn chants broke mesmerizing melodies.
An amusing number was Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally.” In a perfect country accent, Nelson crooned the verses as he moseyed down the steps of the stage, then sat down next to a female member of the audience. “How you doin’?” he romantically growled into the microphone. Simpson and Gilsenan looked embarrassed, the audience laughed, and Nelson oozed back to the stage, where he sat down and winked at the husband of the woman he tried to woo.
From amusing numbers like this to opera from Rigoletto or “Hard Times” by Stephen Foster, my favorite might have been “Better,” written exclusively for them.
“Our love has changed/ It’s the same/ And the only way to say it/ To say it, it’s better ... See what I’m trying to say is/ You make things better/ And no matter what the day is/ With you here, it’s better.”
I put my pencil down and squeezed Marshall’s hand.
The song rises and falls in a way that could even break the most crystalline heart. It was a powerful display of emotion and vocal control.
From the audience’s involvement throughout the performance to the standing ovation it gave the singers at the end – an ovation that brought on a second finale – I think the Celtic Tenors fulfilled my prediction that they would transport their listeners beyond Clayton.
But truth is, I’m not sure I want to be transported. If Clayton continues to attract talent like the Celtic Tenors, who would want to leave? Here’s a shout-out to all the people who work to bring high-quality art to Clayton. I was delighted to share it with my man.