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Celtic Woman gives the Irish tradition a contemporary spin

Since its inception in 2004, Celtic Woman has sold millions of albums globally and raised boatloads of cash for PBS during the network’s annual fundraising drives.

For vocalist Susan McFadden, who replaced founding member Lisa Kelly in 2012, the success of the group was rather eye-opening when she first joined. Up to that point, she’d been performing in revivals of “Grease,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Legally Blonde” on London’s West End.

McFadden’s pathway to Celtic Woman came via friendships she had with former members Kelly and Chloë Agnew, both of whom she’d worked with on other musical theater productions.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about Celtic Woman. I’d been living in the UK and performing in musical theater in London in the West End,” McFadden says. “I knew Lisa Kelly from years ago. We’d worked together actually when I was a teenager. We’d done a show in Dublin many years ago.

“I knew Chloë Agnew from when she was a baby,” she recalls. “I worked with her mother when I was 11 in a production of ‘Annie’ where I played the title role and her mother played Miss Hannigan. From the two of them and social media, I was able to see and learn about Celtic Woman. … Then the call came out of the blue to join them. I thought that was weird, but Chloë and Lisa had actually put my name forward when the time came that they were looking for a new member.”

By the time McFadden joined, Celtic Woman had built their out-of-the-box success into a firmly established career. The original lineup’s self-titled first concert DVD sold more than a million copies, while the group’s companion self-titled first studio album topped Billboard magazine’s World Music chart for a record-setting 81 weeks.

Celtic Woman has gone on to release a steady string of popular studio albums and concert DVDs. In all, Celtic Woman has sold more than nine million CDs and DVDs.

Like prior tours, this year’s production has a theme — home. The group is using its recently released live album, “Celtic Woman: Homecoming Live from Ireland,” as a touchstone.

It’s all very exciting for McFadden, who has grown to love visiting far-flung locales with fellow singers Máiréad Carlin and Eabha McMahon and violinist Tara McNeill and the rest of the Celtic Woman crew, who have become a second family to her. The fact that she gets to travel with her husband Anthony Byrne, who plays bagpipes in the production, is an added bonus.

“We have a lot of new songs in this show … all very much based around the theme of homecoming. They’re really nice songs to sing and perform because they’re all relating to coming back to our homeland and what we miss about it,” she says.

While purists may bristle at the way Celtic Woman presents Irish culture to the masses, McFadden is rightly proud of the legacy she and the other women in this musical sorority have created. It gibes perfectly for the Dubliner who grew up enthralled by powerful pop vocalists like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, while also hailing from a family with deep Gaelic roots.

“We’re all very different and we are all from very different musical backgrounds, but we come together to create a very unique sound,” McFadden says. “What I like about Celtic Woman is that we take really old, traditional Irish songs and bring them into the 21st century and we make them appeal to all ages by putting a different twist on it.”

Dave Gil de Rubio is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.


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