Monday, December 15, 2008

Susan McKeown, Celtic Woman

My local PBS station insists on broadcasting an abomination called the Celtic Woman Christmas Special about four times per day. This is the same special where the well-known Christmas carol "Danny Boy" is sung sweetly and mawkishly, just as it is in every faux Irish pub in County Franklin, Ohio. All of this is apparently intended to prime the pump for viewer donations, since the Erin-by-way-of-Vegas extravaganza is interrupted every ten minutes or so by earnest pleas for money. I am almost, but not quite, ready to send them money so that they won't show the wee lasses with the Big Broadway voices and the muscular bodhran player in the sleeveless shirt ever again.
In contrast, there is the lovely music of one Susan McKeown, born in Dublin (Ireland, that is, not Ohio), now residing in NYC. Susan sings her own songs, but also the traditional music of her native land, and she does so not at all mawkishly. She has a lovely alto that recalls less Broadway-ready Celtic singers such as Sandy Denny, who recorded with an influential little band called Fairport Convention, and June Tabor, who recorded with The Oyster Band when she wasn't working as a librarian. Yes, the singing librarian. Look, these are relatively prosaic lives (June's, anyway; Sandy's, not so much). They all just happen to sing better than the Broadway wannabes.
Susan McKeown can hold her own with the best of them. And that's saying something, because Sandy Denny and June Tabor have the kind of miles-deep soulfulness and melancholy cry in their voices that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. For original songs that still manage to sound hundreds of years old, you might want to pick up Susan's 2002 album Prophecy. For traditional material with a twist (as in accompanied at times by a Malian band, at other times by a Mexican mariachi band, and at other times by, imagine this, Irish musicians), try Susan's superb 2006 album Sweet Liberty. For an Irish take on klezmer music, as filtered through Woody Guthrie (look, this is too good to make up), hunt down her 2007 collaboration with The Klezmatics called Wonder Wheel.


CarolN said...

Those cringe-worthy PBS specials are right up there with NPR's Toss the Feathers if you ask me. Not my thing.

Anonymous said...

I agree that most radios are not fair with the true masters of Celtic music, and specially the first of them, Alan Stivell, the man who actually gave life to this 'genre'. Why do we never hear him?