It took two massive tractor-trailers and two cross-country buses — pulling trailers of their own — to pack Celtic Thunder into the DPAC in Durham Wednesday night. Celtic Thunder is the kind of show the DPAC was made for: a one-night-only act that needs a huge venue to present its one-of-a-kind evening of musical theater. A quintet of male vocalists backed by a talented multi-instrumental band, Celtic Thunder is the male equivalent of Celtic Woman, which took America by storm earlier in the decade. The group performed two full sets for a packed house of the giddy faithful, performing a combination of Celtic and popular music that set the house rocking with screaming, dancing fans.
As noted, Celtic Thunder is made up of five men. Four are Irish, one is a Scot. All, if the reaction of the audience is any indication, are dreamy. Their ages range from 18 to 42 and their voices, from the high Irish tenor to the low, rafter-rattling bass that anchors the group. These five men are backed by a string trio, keyboards, percussion, bagpipes, a harp, and guitars. And that's just the beginning.
Seven instrumentalists, most of whom wear microphones themselves, back the vocalists. Led by musical director David Cooke on keyboards, the band consists of Nicole Hudson on violin, Katie Holt on cello, Declan O'Donaghue on percussion, Neil Byrne on guitars, and a pair of super-amazing multi-instrumentalists that might have easily stolen the show if not for the boys' stunning vocal power. Joanna Byrne is the trio's violist, but she also performs on Celtic harp, a variety of whistles, flute, and concertina. She is matched on the guys' side by Brendan Monaghan, who plays everything, it seems, from two kinds of bagpipes to percussion, guitar, banjo, trumpet and bodhran, the traditional Irish hand-held drum.
The boys are, in chronological order, Damian, Keith, Ryan, Paul, and George. Damian McGinty began with the Thunder at the tender age of 14, when his voice was still high. Now 18, he has gone from the highest voice to the lowest, a rumbling baritone. But he still has the fresh-faced look of the Irish youth. He is followed by Keith Harkin, 24, who has been performing since age 4 and is himself an avid guitarist — and a surfer. Next comes Paul Byrom, 31, who is considered to be one of Ireland's premier tenors. He's joined by Ryan Kelly, also 31, who has performed as Judas in Jesus Christ, Superstar and is currently recording his first solo album. Rounding out the group is the eldest vocalist, George Donaldson, 42, who comes from a musical family; his young daughter, Sarah, is teaching him violin.
The evening's entertainment was divided by intermission into "Heritage," Act I, which focuses on the music of the Isles; and "It's Entertainment," Act II, a collection of popular music that defies description. Act I begins with "Heartland," a quintet, with the whole band and the boys warming up a house already eager for the show to begin. Highlights of Act I included Harkin's haunting rendition of "The Dutchman (Dear Margaret)," followed by Ryan and Nicole in a duet of voice and fiddle, "Black Is the Color (of my True Love’s Hair)." The band performed a rousing dance, "Belfast Polka," that was a showstopper. Keith and guitarist Neil joined forces on matching guitars for “Whiskey in the Jar,” before the whole group came back together for an audience favorite, "(All God's Creatures Got) A Place in the Choir," which closed out act I.
Act II, "It's Entertainment," focused on a variety of popular tunes from both sides of the pond, the first highlight of which was a trio performed by Keith, Ryan and Neil. The audience erupted with applause when it recognized "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen. Damian pulled out an oldie but a goody with "Watching All the Girls Go By," before another quintet, "I Wanna Know What Love Is." Paul did another show stopper with his high-stepping and spirited "Doo Whacka Doo," followed by Keith and his guitar performing a medley of Beach Boys music, "Surfer Medley," including "Surf City," "Fun, Fun, Fun," and "Surfin' USA." This was a treat for the feminine audience, which reacted with screams of delight to rival the Beatles' early concerts. George pleased us with a superb rendition of Neil Diamond's "Hello Again" before the band took the stage again for "Appalachian Roundup." This gave the boys time to change for the Grand Finale, "Ireland’s Call," which they performed in traditional Irish kilts.
Celtic Thunder is a sensational night's entertainment, and the band has a following that tags along as they tour. A pair of ladies from Asheville had joined the band's Charleston show as well as this show and another to be performed in Charlotte. That's the kind of loyalty the band inspires. It is impossible not to be swayed by the infectious good vibes of the music and this talented band. If you get the opportunity to visit Celtic Thunder, don't pass it up. The concert is a guaranteed good time.