Celtic Roads through Ireland, Scotland & Brittany
80 Mount Auburn Street
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
To borrow an expression from old Grateful Dead bumper stickers,"There is nothing like the Christmas Revels." For almost thirty years, the Christmas Revels has graced that season with a unique theatrical event of music, drama, and ritual, melding both Judeo-Christian and pagan traditions from around the world. The result--boisterous and exultant, solemn and ephemeral--is, for many people, one of the highlights of the season. The Solstice just hasn't begun until they've joined in the chorus to Lord of the Dance.
Founded by John Langstaff in the late 1960s, the Revels began in Cambridge, MA, and has since branched out to similar franchises in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and Tacoma, among others. While employing mainly professional musicians, the hallmark of each production is the generously large amateur chorus, which gives the shows an unpolished, populist flavor.
The Cambridge Revels has produced recordings since the mid 1970s, beginning with an lp that remains a holiday classic. Cambridge also mounts an annual summer Revels, which enjoys a similar popularity. Of these, the Celtic Spring Revels has been more successful than others in terms of coherence and musical richness; and it is from this production that Revels has culled the music for its latest CD, Celtic Roads.
In this case, the focus is on the bands of nomads called Travelers: Celtic tinkers, tinsmiths, and potters who, to this day, roam the Emerald Isle in caravans, finding work where they can and making music all along the way. Hornpipes, jigs, and reels thus make up much of the recording, as well as ballads, drinking tunes, and street cries sung in Gaelic, Breton, and English, and accompanied by bagpipes, fiddles, bodhran, harp, and the traditional bombard (a wind instrument that does just that to one's ears). The effect is more earthy than Revels usually gets, but no less charming and mellifluous.
The musicianship throughout is quite excellent, especially on such cuts as Peter Turbit's Hornpipe, Bal Fisel, and the opening Strobinell, which fuses a traditional an dro line dance with a rocking Western beat. Of particular note is Mance Grady, who pounds away on his bodhran like a Celtic Mickey Hart.
David Coffin, a veteran of the Cambridge Revels, lends his voice to such songs as Le Semeur and The Traveling Candyman. His high baritone seems destined to succeed John Langstaff's as the unifying voice of the Revels. Another memorable vocalist is Bridget Fitzgerald, whose sean-nos style on "An T-Aiseiri" has a sound both lilting and rough hewn, as if her voice grew out of the ground.
The harmonies of the chorus, arranged by George Emlen, another veteran of the Cambridge Revels, are full-bodied and exquisite, and especially grand on the Breton tune Le Semeur and the final Parting Glass. Celtic purists may be put off by the lush, stagy choral treatment of many of the tunes. But diehard Revels fans--"Revels-heads?"--will switch on Celtic Roads and imagine they're sitting front row center.
Edited by: David Schultz