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Irish guys are smiling

Finbar Wright is looking forward to the Irish Tenors' first gig in Portland.

'It's 112 degrees here,' he says on the phone from Phoenix, slightly shellshocked. It's too hot to leave the hotel, but the air conditioning is drying out his throat, making him cough. 'You can't use Guinness to lubricate your vocal cords; that just dries them out more.'

Informed that Portland that same morning was cool and drizzly, he sighs with nostalgia for his homeland.

Which is what's it's all about really: the big feelings. At an Irish Tenors show, love songs, war songs and comic songs all come with the vast symphonic backing of the overwhelming urge to belong. The fact that 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' and 'I'll Take You Home Kathleen' were written by Americans only proves the point.

'The one thing immigrants could bring with them (to the United States) was their music, and it's been preserved here better than anywhere else in the world, including Ireland, in some cases,' he says.

According to Wright, the crowd is skewing younger:

'A lot of our audience have no connection to Ireland. They just saw us on PBS and thought, 'I'd like to go to one of them concerts. É' '

The Irish Tenors were formed in 1998 to cash in on the success of the Three Tenors, the Pavarotti-Carreras-Domingo troika that first wowed the world at the 1990 soccer World Cup with its rendition of 'Nessun Dorma' from Giacomo Puccini's 'Turandot.'

Their material is much less operatic. Bringing operatic stylings to folk music isn't easy. 'One of the most difficult we do is 'I Know My Love,' which was recorded recently by the (pop band) Corrs,' Wright says. 'The rhythms lend themselves to free singing (a cappella). But we have a 47-piece orchestra, so the temptation is to use it. We look for songs that are interesting lyrically and melodically.'

Although they inevitably crank out 'Danny Boy' and 'America the Beautiful,' the old folk song (and Thin Lizzy hit) 'Whiskey in the Jar' is fast becoming their signature tune.

'It's a wonderful piece of music. We give it a slightly country and western treatment,' Wright says.

Wright, 45, is the youngest of eight, and has a sister in Massachusetts who came over as a nurse. He's also the new tenor on the block, joining in 2000 after John McDermott dropped out.

An accomplished artist with six solo albums, he gets on fine with Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan. Kearns is the other dark-haired one; Tynan is the fella with the jug ears and James Joyce glasses. He was featured in a Barbara Walters special: the double-amputee star athlete who became a doctor at 30 and didn't sing seriously until he was 33.

'We like to joke around on stage Ñ we're all comedians,' Wright says. 'It's a real buzz to get out there with a full orchestra. And if the audience knows you're enjoying it, they will, too.'

Contact Joseph Gallivan at

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