december 2011


Stretching Boundaries, Affirming Seasonal Verities

The ‘Ancient, Modern Celtic Music’ of Ric Blair’s Christmas With Celts

By David McGee

The Celts
Celtic Isle Records

During this year’s Christmas season PBS viewers will be able to view a special filmed before a live audience last year featuring a collective of home grown artists with Irish/Scottish roots along with Ould Sod natives in a festive “Christmas With the Celts” concert. A DVD of the live show is available, as well as this studio recording containing eight songs not performed in the live show, which makes it almost a second show, if you will.

Ric Blair

The Celts’ leader is Cincinnati-born Nashville resident Ric Blair. Being true to both is Irish/Scottish roots (he’s traced his Scottish roots back to John Blair, the personal chaplain to Scottish hero William Wallace) and his American heritage, he has crafted an interesting concept blending Uillean pipes, bodhrans, fiddles and whistles with guitars, keyboards, synths and electronic drum loops, a combination gives, say, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a certain edge in its frayed, insistent percussion as the pipes and whistle play the familiar, beloved melody—its anxious pulse kind of sounds right for the year of Occupy Wall Street, a carol for the 99 percenters. This is to attach meaning to an intepretation for which there is no corroborating proof. Far more likely, Mr. Blair (who sings, plays guitar, electric bass, mandolin, bodhran and keyboards) and his basic band—Jeff Durham (percussion), Kim Barnes (Celtic fiddle), Patrick Darcy (Uillean pipes, whistles) and Skip Cleavinger (pipes, whistles)—simply want to create a program from the American/Irish/Scottish Christmas canons and see if there might be a new way into a range of material spanning the 13th to the 20th centuries. As Mr. Blair writes in his liner notes, ”We refer to this music as ‘ancient, modern Celtic music.”

From the Christmas With the Celts DVD and CD, ‘Drowsy Maggie/Treble Reel.’ This live version features the Nashville Irish Step Dancers. Ric Blair is on guitar.

Owing to Mr. Blair’s gritty voice, his version of “Little Drummer Boy,” rather halting with the pipes and whistles wafting throughout, has a bluesy feel to it—the reverence is there but the vocal attack is more intense and urgent than most artists have deployed in its innumerable cover versions. On the other hand, the pipes, whistles, acoustic guitar and cymbal splashes used as dramatic punctuation marks enhance—exalt, even--the reverential mood of “O Holy Night,” as Blair responds with a fervent, impassioned reading, again with a smidgen of the blues singer’s panache in the slight drawl he adopts. Keyed by Darcy’s Uillean pipes, an instrumental version of “The First Noel” rolls out in stately, beautiful splendor for two minutes and 10 seconds, when it mutates melodically and rhythmically into a sprightly “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” both performances being deeply felt gems of contrasting moods honoring the Christ child’s birthday.

A preview of the Christmas With the Celts live DVD

“Balulalow,” one of the album’s oldest songs, is one of its most precious moments: rich in symbolism, this 16th Century Scottish carol is realized in a dramatic, swirling atmosphere in which the ascending and receding pipes and keening whistle seem to sound a clarion call when Blair’s urgent vocal pauses between verses—the whole track has an eerie, foreboding feel but the drama fueling the narrative is the blessed event of Christ’s birth. “While singing this song, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to actually experience visiting the Christ child,” Blair explains in his liner notes. “This song is sung in the broadscot dialect, which is a mixture of English and Gaelic. I love the way the ancient lyricist brought together symbolically how Jesus was perhaps lying in a wooden crib made from a tree—the same substance from which he would eventually be hung to save mankind.” Older still is “Wexford Carol,” from 12th Century Ireland’s County Wexford. Though dirge-like—the tin whistle’s cry is positively chilling—the carol is in fact an account of the nativity of Christ with an emphasis on the humility of those who attended the birth as well as its humble setting. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the exceptional fiddler/vocalist of the Irish traditional band Altan, tells the tale lovingly in those soft, unembroidered tones Altan fans cherish for their direct impact on listeners’ feelings.

Conceptually taut and flawlessly executed with all hearts on deck, Christmas With the Celts at times stretches the boundaries of seasonal music but never loses sight of seasonal verities. It will endure.

Christmas With the Celts is available on CD and DVD at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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