The pluck of the Irish
Once upon a time, Celtic musicians traveled through knee-deep mud and fierce elements to bring holiday mirth and music to remote villages.
Though the travelling is easier these days, there is one group of performers that still aims to bring the unique joy and song of “A Celtic Christmas’ to revelers everywhere.
The Boys of the Lough, performing at the Vilar Center Monday at 7:30 p.m., was the first professional Celtic ensemble to arise on the international scene three decades ago. Since the band’s official inception in 1973, the Boys of the Lough have made 58 tours of North America in an effort to gain a wider audience and respect for traditional music.
With musicians Cathal McConnell, Dave Richardson, Brendan Begley, Malcom Sitt and Kevin Henderson playing diverse instruments from the button accordion to the whistle, to the fiddle and the Highland pipes, the sound produced is guaranteed to be unique – and pleasing.
The band’s successful 30-year career has included two Grammy nominations and widespread acknowledgement of their crucial role in bringing about the current explosion of interest in all facets of Celtic music.
In a very special holiday performance, the Boys of the Lough call upon age-old traditions to create a concert sound all their own. The band members, hailing from Scotland, Ireland, Shetland and Northumberland, integrate the diverse mid-winter traditions of their respective homes into their one-of-a-kind performance.
“Really what we’re doing is bringing something into a place that wouldn’t have it otherwise,” said Richardson, manager and original band member.
And, that “something” they bring is as steeped in tradition as it is unique.
McConnell, award-winning flute and whistle player – not to mention band founder – learned much of what he knows from his musical mentor, P. Flanagan.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Flanagan participated in an age-old, holiday-performance group known as the Mummers, and it is from this passed-down tradition that the Boys of the Lough draw some of their inspiration.
“P Flanagan was part of a group known as the Mummers who went around at midwinter performing,” said Richardson. “They were also called the Straw Boys because they had disguises made of straw – they sort of appeared like tribesman, exotic looking and terrifying. It was always a big event when they came; they would be anonymous and the members of the house would try to guess who were – if they came from your village or far away.”
But, the performances of these “Straw Boys’ were not merely for entertainment, nor for monetary gain. As Richardson tells it, such performances were an integral part of the community holiday celebration.
“The money they made performing was saved up for a dance, and everyone whose house had been visited was invited to the dance,” Richardson recounts. “It was a piece of cohesion; keeping the community together.”
When asked if the Boys of the Lough, who perform “A Celtic Christmas’ tirelessly throughout Dec., are modern-day Straw Boys, Richardson answered with a chuckle.
“In a sense,” he said. “I suppose you could stretch the analogy that far.”
According to Richardson, the real purpose of the concert tour is to spread the joy and song of the holidays as they exist in the Boys’ homelands in Northern Europe.
In a performance that critics have said is not unlike “meeting with old friends,” the band brings its warm, homey Celtic holiday atmosphere to Beaver Creek.
“We just perform like we would in someone’s house, or in a pub,” said Richardson. “If we don’t have fun, what chance is there that the audience will have fun? But it’s not forced. We don’t come in and say, “This is a chorus song. Everyone sing along now.'”
But do these performers, who travel to bring their home traditions to us, miss out on their home traditions by being here?
“We love being out on the road, but being home is just the other side of that coin,” said Richardson.
After a pause, Richardson added, with an audible smile, “We’re missing a lot of parties right now, but maybe that’s good for us.”
It sounds like the band, on a grueling schedule, will be also be missing any powder that may fall while they’re here.
“We really won’t have time to ski,” said Richardson. “And, I actually don’t ski, but my daughters are green with envy at my being here.”
Good thing, then, that it’s not the snow but the intimate, friendly, small-town atmosphere found in the valley that tailors it so well to the Boys’ performance.
“We go into a concert and want to be friends with the audience,” said Richardson. “We’re not a big rock show, we don’t set out to dominate the audience with music. I think it’s not just what the musicians do, it’s the interplay between the two halves. Everyone contributes.”
Come to the Vilar Center Monday at 7:30 p.m. to contribute some spirit of your own. Tickets are $35.
Sarah Dixon is a freelance writer based in Vail.
AT A GLANCE:
What: Boys of the Lough: Traditional Celtic Music
When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Vilar Center, Beaver Creek