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2006-03-24 Celtic to be tenor of evening of music

Entertainment Writer


When the Celtic Tenors performed "Danny Boy" for former President Bill Clinton several years ago, "he was only a few feet away and he had tears in his eyes," said tenor Niall Morris.


While many people, Irish and otherwise, are moved to tears by the plaintive ballad, those feelings aren't always due to warm 'n' wistful thoughts about the song and its tale of a lad leaving the Emerald Isle.


Though the Celtic Tenors' new CD calls "Danny Boy" "Ireland's most treasured folk song," tenor James Nelson admits the song can spur a mixed reaction.


The song boasts "a traditional Irish melody but its words are by an Englishman, so I suppose it's a bit dodgy in that sense," Nelson said by phone from Chicago, during a stop on the tenors' current tour. That tour brings the trio -- Irishmen Nelson, Morris and Matthew Gilsenan -- to Daytona Beach tonight for a concert at News-Journal Center.


"Originally it was, of course, on a short list to be the Irish national anthem, way back in the 1920s when we got independence (from Britain)," Nelson said. "But Fred Weatherly, who wrote the words, never even set foot in Ireland. So, it's a shame -- even though it's a traditional tune, the 'Derry Air' or the 'Londonderry Air,' depending on whichever side of the border (between Ireland and Northern Ireland) you come from."


Though Irish singer Maura O'Connell loathes "Danny Boy," such reactions didn't prevent the Celtic Tenors from recording the song on their first album five years ago, and recording an a cappella version on their new CD, "Remember Me."

"The whole sentiment of the song is a father sending his son off to war, wondering if he'll ever see him again," Nelson said. "It seems to be poignant, we think anyway, that three guys are singing it. It's not a typical love love song. It's a fatherly love, really. We've literally sung it in every single show ever since (the first album). People expect to hear it."

People may not expect to hear other songs on "Remember Me," the tenors' third studio album. The CD also includes such classical crossover works as "Ten Thousand Tears" and "Non Siamo Isole/We Are Not Islands" (sung in English and Italian); "You Raise Me Up," an inspirational song performed with Irish pop-soul singer Samantha Mumba; a version of "All Out of Love," that 1980 hit by the pop duo Air Supply; and "Eric's Song," a work with music by the tenors melded to lyrics by Eric Nance, an American who was convicted of murder and executed in Arkansas last November.

Nelson realizes far more controversy may swirl around "Eric's Song" than "Danny Boy."

"I've always had a serious problem with the death penalty," Nelson said. "I just feel it's wrong to kill on either side. Killers are wrong, but I also think we don't have the right to play God."

Ten years ago, he joined Lifelines, an organization which works to link death-row inmates with correspondents. Nelson begin exchanging letters with Nance, a prisoner in Arkansas who "was a drug addict found drugged out at the scene of the murder -- there was never a DNA test conducted."

Last fall, the tenors came to the U.S., and Nelson was able to visit Nance in prison.

"As he said, his mind had been killed a long time ago," Nelson said. "His eyes were kind of hollow when I met him, but eventually he started to smile and even laugh and then he cried."

After the execution, Nelson and his tenor mates set one of Nance's poems to music and decided to include the song on the new CD. Nelson doubts the tenors will perform the song in concert, but if they do, "I'm not going to be political," Nelson said.

"I think there's nothing more of a turn-off. We toured with Dionne Warwick in the UK, and she started from the stage saying, 'Shame on George Bush' and everything. Anytime she was heckled from the audience, she'd say, 'I've got a microphone, you don't.' She was quite aggressive about it.

"I thought, 'Oh gosh, don't do this. This is not a soapbox. You're a musician.' We should get up and sing. I can have my views, I can have my faith, I can have my spirituality. But I'm not going to start telling people to be born again or whatever."

For their current tour, the Celtic Tenors will be joined by 18-year-old, Irish-born soprano Donna Malone, and their musical director and pianist, David Munro.