Sure and Every Person in the Audience Felt Like a Celt

Times Staff Writer

Is there such a thing as musically induced genetic memory? Certainly nothing short of that can explain the immediate and universal appeal or the straight-to-the-heart-like-a-cannonball impact of the Boys of the Lough and their traditional Celtic music.

Not 2 minutes into the quintet's blithely spirited performance Saturday at Saddleback College, it seemed that everyone in the near-capacity crowd found themselves in wistful reminiscence of mist-shrouded streets in County Cork and of neighbors gathered 'round the hearth while friends and relatives played reels, jigs and hornpipes as long as the Guinness held out.

That included those of us whose only link to the Emerald Isle is the occasional bowl of Lucky Charms.

Like their more famous peers, the Chieftains, the Boys of the Lough (pronounced lock, as in loch ) exist to keep alive the folk stories and melodies of Ireland and Scotland. It is sometimes deliriously joyful, sometimes heartbreakingly sentimental, always transparently beautiful music that is unashamed to wear its heart on its sleeve.

From the sense of relaxed enthusiasm that the five musicians showed through the 2-hour program, the twice-Grammy-nominated group showed no sign of creeping indifference, even though they've been at it for nearly 20 years.

It is especially gratifying to see that, as pop music becomes ever more dependent on high-tech electronics, the only plug these boys needed was the one made at intermission for their records, tapes and CDs on sale in the McKinney Theatre foyer. And from the brisk business they did, it appeared that the public's interest in traditional Celtic music continues to grow.

This is probably due as much to such high-profile projects as last year's "Irish Heartbeat" album from Van Morrison and the Chieftains, as to a general enthusiasm for all things Irish and Scottish induced by the slew of hot Celtic rock bands, from U2 and Hothouse Flowers through In Tua Nua and the Proclaimers.

If there was any cause for disappointment, it was the absence of regular member Christy Leary, who excused himself from the current tour--and with him his exquisite singing and haunting uillean pipes. Yet neither music nor audience was shortchanged, thanks to Breanndan O. Beagloaich, who substituted ample dexterity and wide-ranging expressivity with his button accordion.

That left all vocal duties to flute-whistle player Cathal McConnell, whose ethereal tenor was every bit as agile as his instrumental work. On "Once I Loved," a melancholy ballad sung by Leary on the group's latest album, "Sweet Rural Shade," McConnell adroitly bobbed and weaved in and around the melody line, sounding as graceful as Muhammad Ali looked in his prime.

Through the rest of the program, this musically democratic and nationalistically integrated group--three Irishmen, one Scot and one Englishman--supplied a nonstop variety of textures.

Typically, a jig might begin with fiddle and wood flute in lilting unison, then accordion would join in harmony, followed by piano providing percussive rhythm and melodic counterpoint and rounded out with mandolin, cittern or guitar for pluck. Along the constantly evolving way, McConnell's flute would give way to tin whistle, Dave Richardson's mandolin to concertina (which occasionally acted as the drone in place of the uillean pipes) or John Coakley's piano to guitar.

Only once, on a medley of fluffy polkas from southern Ireland, did the music become so stereotypically winsome as to sound cartoonish.

With everything else, from their woeful ballads of unrequited love to sprightly reels of unfettered merriment, the Boys of the Lough spoke to that part of every soul that's a little bit Celtic--even if only in spirit.

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