Celtic Thunder will pay tribute to ‘Big George’ throughout tour

SHARE Celtic Thunder will pay tribute to ‘Big George’ throughout tour
SHARE Celtic Thunder will pay tribute to ‘Big George’ throughout tour

BY TRICIA DESPRES | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

He never expected to fall asleep while watching a movie, and he never expected to wake up at five in the morning after a late show in Detroit the night before, and he never, ever expected the message on the screen that awaited him that fateful morning.

But most of all, Ryan Kelly never expected to be awakened by a tragedy.

“It was March of this year, and the way our schedules turned out, I was in the states while all of the other members were home in Ireland,” says Kelly, one of the members of the famed singing group Celtic Thunder. “I literally woke up out of the blue and saw the email pop up on my screen from our producer that something very tragic had happened.”

The message alerted Kelly of the untimely death of George Donaldson, a founding member of the group. The oldest member of the group, who affectionately was known as “Big George,” died of a massive heart attack in his sleep in his hometown of Glasgow.

He was 46.

“It was such a shock to all of us,” said Kelly. “In a weird way, I thank God that he was home with his daughter and wife when it happened. I guess it’s one of the only blessings of the whole experience. It’s just still so surreal and so difficult. When you spend seven years of your life with someone…I mean, I spent more time with George than my whole family… it’s just a massive loss to all of us, both on stage and off stage. But he would want the show to go on. It must go on.”

And with that sentiment, the members of Celtic Thunder have embarked on their current North American Tour, which includes a stop at the Chicago Theatre on Nov.30. The show will feature songs from their new CD, “Holiday Symphony,” and a new baritone in the form of Irish American/New Yorker Emmett O’Hanlon.

“Every night is going to be a tribute to George,” said Kelly. “We still hear his big voice booming in our head in every song we sing. He will continue to be a part of everything we do for a long time.”

The holiday tour will also serve as the first-ever Symphony Tour for the group. “We move around, and the symphonies will stay,” said Kelly, who will also sing alongside fellow Celtic Thunder members Keith Harkin, Neil Byrne and Colm Keegan.

“It’s not lost on us how lucky we are to be singing with some of the most amazing players. To have the chance to play with a different 50- to 70-piece orchestra in every city while on the road is going to be something very different for us and for the fans for well. There will be some apprehension for sure.”

Apprehension might be a surprising characteristic for the group, which has sold 2 million CDs and has appeared on countless PBS specials since their debut in 2008. But yes, there is a bit of anxiety, even when your music has over 28 million views on YouTube.

“I wouldn’t say we get nervous, but there are still a lot of nerves,” said Kelly. “We will arrive in each new city in the morning and play with a different symphony every night. It’s going to be pretty intense but pretty amazing at the same time.”

And come mid-December, after spending a month and a half sharing the spirit of the season with thousands, Kelly will go home in the nick of time to share the holiday with the one person that means so much to him.

“My dad plays organ in our local chapel, and it’s a tradition for him to sing alongside him at Mass,” Kelly said quietly. “That’s when Christmas will really begin for me.”

Celtic Thunder, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. $32.50-$75. Visit ticketmaster.com

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.

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