FORMER US President Bill Clinton described their rendition as “the finest version of ‘Danny Boy’ I have ever heard.” The Irish Examiner says they “combine the high standards of operatic singing with a delightfully informal sense of fun”.
Now, after 18 years of performing together and 12 studio albums, The Celtic Tenors are coming to Australia with their biggest tour to date. Although they have done shows with Celtic Woman here before and performed the occasional one-off gig, the classical-based singing trio are bringing their sound to Australian audiences, having concentrated mainly on America/ Canada until now.
“It’s very new territory for us,” Sligo’s James Nelson tells The Irish Echo. “The few things we have done in Australia have gone very well. I think that’s why we’re coming back. We’re confident that Australia will be in our touring schedule because we’ve nearly toured every other continent.”
The Celtic Tenors provide a unique stage show, combining classical music with more traditional Irish, pop and all with their distinctive charisma and banter. “Even though we’re essentially a classical/crossover act, we don’t like to be labelled in that way because what we do in the show is so different. We do Nessun Dorma but the next minute we’re doing Whiskey in the Jar, Danny Boy or even The Boxer. The mix is so eclectic, there really is something for everybody. I think that is why we’re together so long.
“Sometimes the name works against us. People think, ‘Bloody Irish; only sing Irish songs’. Even with our albums, it’s hard to know where to put them in a record store because they could be in the classical, crossover, or world, or Irish or easy listening. You kind of have to ask at reception where they are.” The Celtic Tenors have been in existence since 2000.
While James and Matthew Gilsenan have been involved from the very start until now, Daryl Simpson from Omagh replaced Niall Morris in 2006. This tour will see them perform The Irish Songbook that will include Song For Ireland, Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and more favourites.
“As a group, our passion is the music and as long as the music is forefront, that is what will keep us together. If we stop enjoying the music and stop enjoying what we do, we’ll give it up. You see orchestras and when the conductor is giving notes, they take out their newspapers and you want to go up and shake them and say, ‘do you not realise how lucky you are to make music or a living?’ I pinch myself all the time.
“We were in Abbey Road for our second album in the same studio as The Beatles and I was just pinching myself, I couldn’t believe that this was what we were doing for a living. This is how I sing for my supper.
“In Sydney as well when we were getting our pictures taken with the Sydney skyline in the background, I was just thinking, ‘How fortunate am I?’ I think that’s the biggest achievement for me as a group, that we are loving the music still. If it becomes a job, I will pack it in. There’s no point in doing it as a job. You have to be in love. I hope that doesn’t make you throw up.”
Another of James’s passions is philanthropy. For years he has been part of a project in Kenya that gives AIDS orphans a second chance at life: “Now we’re seeing kids we worked with years ago graduating as teachers, accountants, chefs and engineers which is the most surreal thing.
James is not the only one with such an extremely worthwhile personal project as bandmate Daryl was recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list with a British Empire Medal for services to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and services to music.
Daryl, from Omagh, started a peace choir of Protestants and Catholics that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. James says: “BEM. I thought he had dyslexia and it was an MBE but it’s a BEM. We’re very proud of him.”