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Famed tenor McDermott defies people's comparisons

March 10, 2000

Times Leader Correspondent

As a soloist and one of The Irish Tenors, John McDermott, who appears tonight at the Scranton Cultural Center, is often grouped among the best-known -- and downright best -- tenors in the world.

After a year of intense international attention touring with the Irish Tenors, his growing status as a male vocalist means he is constantly being compared with the "other" tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras.

The thing is, said McDermott, he really doesn't have much in common with those men.

"I wouldn't know opera if it jumped up and kicked me," said McDermott with a laugh. "People hear the word tenor and immediately think opera. Tenor is just a range of voice, not a style of music."

Having made that clear, McDermott, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but grew up in Toronto, Canada, went on to describe his style.

Sort of.

"My shows are soft roller-coaster rides," he said. "I tap into emotional, fond memories people have, which includes familiar tunes as well as new songs."

Translated: He and his band play a mix of happy and sad Irish and American folk music. Some of the more well-known songs in his show include, "The Last Rose of Summer," "Danny Boy" and "Waltzing Matilda."

From improbable beginnings (a tape he made for his parents' anniversary in 1993 fell into the hands of a record executive who offered him a deal on the spot), McDermott has risen to virtual superstardom, thanks to his involvement with the Irish Tenors, a trio of singers known primarily from their PBS special, "Live in Belfast."

This January, however, two weeks before the Irish Tenors were scheduled to begin rehearsals for their second PBS special, McDermott's mother died. Feeling unable to devote the necessary energy, he bowed out of the second album and gave his spot to another accomplished tenor, Finbar Wright.

Now, whenever time allows, McDermott performs one or two songs with the Irish Tenors at various shows around the country (He will not appear with the Irish Tenors in their Wilkes-Barre Township appearance next week, however). He's gone back to his first loves: playing American and Irish folk music with his band and championing the interests of American military veterans.

McDermott, who has started several programs around the country for homeless, alcoholic or drug-addicted veterans, said he hopes to eventually start veterans centers in every state in the country.

"My mom's brother died in World War II, at the River Kwai. My dad was based in Belgium as a tail gunner and navigator in B-17 Flying Fortresses. Since I was a child, my family has been a great supporter of veteran's programs, and for the balance of my career, I'm going to continue focusing on them."

When asked about the current "rebirth" of folk music in America, McDermott offered these thoughts.

"Folk music was never gone. There's just a new acknowledgment of it, now. To a degree, folk has also spun into different types of music. But that's been the history of folk music back to the Civil War, where there was mixing and meshing between Scottish and Irish music with contemporary American music.

"I think the main reason there seems to be this rebirth is because of the music industry; retailers have accepted folk music again and given a whole population of people a reason to go back in the music store."