Before I get to the concert review, a bit of history:
Clannad started out as traditional Celtic group from Donegal (in the northwest of Irleand, kind of the wild west of the island) in the the 1970s. The group consists of three siblings, Moya Brennan (harp and lead vocal), Ciarán Brennan (keyboard and bass), and Pól Brennan (flute and guitar), with their twin uncles Noel Duggan (guitar) and Pádraig Duggan (mandolin, guitar). They did pretty well for themselves in the Irish folk circles for a while, singing in Irish and playing their traditional instruments.
In the early 80s, however, they took a decidedly different direction, writing their own songs in English and adding to the usual traditional Irish sound all sort of new noises like synthesizers, keyboards, saxophone, and drum set. Was their adopting of popular musical signifiers music selling out? Fans are still debating this. Whatever you think, they (along with their younger sister, the more famous Enya) pioneered the sound and content of the genre we call New Age, which was as much about folklore and mysticism as overdubbed vocals and synthesizers.
Clannad's real international breakout came in 1982 with "Theme from Harry's Game," which was a theme song for a British TV show. This song charted in at #5 in the UK, which was pretty impressive for being in a foreign language. It featured close harmonies over synthesizer drones and was a completely new sound. Clannad followed up this success by writing the sound track to the BBC Robin of Sherwood in 1984–1986 (nerd confession: I own the series on DVD). Clannad wasn't the only Celtic group to break into the international scene with soundtrack music. Enya followed suit in 1986 with the soundtrack to The Celts, which later became the basis for her first solo album. Capercaillie, the Scottish counterpart to Clannad, did the same with the soundtrack to the Blood is Strong in 1988. All three of these projects mixed Celtic and popular music elements that we now associate with New Age music.
Last Friday, I saw Clannad live in concert. They're pretty old now (especially the uncles), but they are still attracting a medium crowd, at least of a certain age; there were very few people in the audience younger than I, and most of them were probably dragged by their parents. The music definitely improved as the concert progressed, as they worked out the technical problems and perhaps warmed up a bit.
Clannad were at their best when the five of them sang together in close harmonies. They have really refined this lush and blended sound. Of these, the soundtrack selections were really the best presented and written, I think. I'm not sure why they thrive in soundtracks; perhaps because they didn't feel they needed to convey a story with words (English lyrics aren't the band's strength) and instead focused on translating the extant story into music. My biggest complaint is that the words were unintelligible when they had all the instruments cranking, which could have been the sound person's fault.
One final note: the amazing thing about Clannad's sound is that even as they made their transition into popular music, they still kept traditional elements, such as working in the Irish language and their traditional instruments (how many folk harp solos have you heard in popular music?). Still, sometimes I do wish for some blistering Celtic dance music. But that's not their style, and that's okay. They proved in this concert that even though they "went popular," they did not turn their back on their traditional roots.
Next week, I'll discuss the peculiar ritual of ending a pop concert. Stay tuned!
Vocab: drone, musical signifiers, close harmonies