Celtic group adds lively resonance to age-old tunes

All about that lilt
Founder Ric Blair on bodhran with fiddler/vocalist Laura McGhee.

There’s a strong cultural connection between Appalachian folk music and the traditional music of the Celts. That helps account for the enormous appeal in and around the mountains for musical presentations that showcase traditional Irish and Scottish music. Building upon that foundation, adding a modern twist, and focusing on a holiday theme is Christmas with the Celts, a musical extravaganza that’s modern and traditional all at once.

Ric Blair recalls the first time he encountered Irish music, while studying at a conservatory in Cincinnati. “As soon as we walked in the door, I heard the fiddle, the pipes, the bodhrán, and the Irish flute,” he says. “And there was something in my DNA that made me realize: ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Blair’s mother’s family is from Derry in Northern Ireland, and his father is from Scotland, so he has a fair claim to what he calls “rich Celtic blood.” But the group he formed more than a decade ago in Nashville uses the music of the Celtic traditions as a jumping-off point rather than a confining element. “I grew up listening to country, bluegrass, and rock’n’ roll,” he explains. “So this group is kind of full-circle for me.” 

Over the years, Blair’s band has featured players drawn from the best that both Nashville and the British Isles have to offer. Among the Americans is banjoist Matt Menefee, who also tours with Bruce Hornsby and Mumford & Sons. Dublin-born journeyman musician Patrick D’Arcy plays Uilleann pipes. “We’ve had a number of different musicians depending on who’s already touring and who’s available,” Blair says. The current lineup includes Fiachra O’Regan from Connemara, a touring member for more than seven years. “He plays pipes, whistles, and Irish banjo,” says Blair. 

He muses on the importance of music as a centerpiece of Celtic traditions. “It’s a culture that had to withstand 800 years of political oppression. I think they turned to music because it was a way of forgetting about one’s problems for a while.” 

And even when times are better, music plays an important role. “There are so many different ways to communicate,” Blair says. “But we’re often missing that face-to-face contact, and I think it’s adversely affecting our emotional well-being. We need that interaction that music and dance and humor can provide.”

Coming together for the winter holidays provides an ideal opportunity to do just that. And Christmas with the Celts serves up an evening of that music, dance and — as the Irish call a good time — craic. Blair describes his holiday program as “an eclectic mix. We have very traditional tunes that we will perform with dance, some original songs, and also Christmas tunes that everyone knows.” The latter are given a traditional-Irish-meets-modern spin. “We use Irish instrumentation,” Blair explains, “but we’ll add drum loops and synth pads.” He says that some arrangements even draw upon jazz, “but with pipes, whistle, and fiddle.”

This year marks the 13th season that Blair has presented Christmas with the Celts. The show got an early break a decade ago when it was broadcast on PBS stations across the nation. “It ran for three years,” Blair says, noting that the program was also broadcast on the BBC. “It immediately opened many doors for us,” he says. “We started getting offers from booking agencies even before we had a manager.”

The program is rooted in tradition, but it changes from year to year. “Every year, we add something fresh,” Blair says. “We’ll add at least two or three new songs, but we also keep it familiar with respect to the Irish-music traditions.”

Though his band tours year-round playing its version of Irish- and Irish-influenced music, Blair holds a special fondness for the holiday shows. “The performance includes some ancient Irish and Scottish carols that date back to the 1300s,” he says. “But they’re just as relevant today. And the songs are just haunting with those Uilleann pipes; I get chills even describing it.”

Mixing those up with American carols and topping it all off with lively dancers and good-natured humor is a recipe for an evening of fun, and that’s exactly what Christmas with the Celts sets out to do. 

Brevard Music Center presents Christmas with the Celts at Parker Concert Hall (349 Andante Lane) on Thursday, Dec. 14, 7:30-9:30pm, $75-$125. For more information, see brevardmusic.org and christmaswiththecelts.com. 

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