William Coulter (third from left) with the other performers in "A Celtic Christmas."
(Via William Coulter)
City Life

After loss and transition, Santa Cruz’s William Coulter returns to celebrate ‘A Celtic Christmas’

Grammy-winning guitarist William Coulter lost his Bonny Doon home and just about everything in it in the 2020 CZU fire. He got back to music slowly, dazedly — “I knew that if I didn’t get back to it, it might slip away” — and comes to the Rio on Friday performing with an Irish holiday variety show.

To many, the words “Celtic” and “Christmas” go together as harmoniously as the colors red and green. And for folk of many faiths — or “none of the above” — there’s nothing quite like spending December bathed in an Irish aesthetic.

For that audience comes “Tomaseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas,” a stage production designed to deliver the warmth and good cheer of an old-country Christmas season, except for the gently falling snow.

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Foley is an Irish-born storyteller who presides over the evening of song and dance, landing at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Friday. With Foley as the narrator and guide, the show features a variety of live instrumental and vocal performances as well as some Irish dancing.

Though “Celtic Christmas” travels across the U.S. this time of year, the stage show does have a local angle. Its musical director is Grammy Award-winning Santa Cruz guitarist William Coulter, who also teaches classical guitar at UC Santa Cruz and has been one of the pillars of the successful Santa Cruz-based musical label Gourd Music.

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Coulter has been with “A Celtic Christmas” since its beginnings in the 1990s; the show has played to local audiences since pre-pandemic days.

The show is hosted by Foley, a raconteur out of the seanchi Irish storytelling tradition. “His whole way of doing it is very organic and natural,” Coulter said of Foley. “He basically just sits down and tells you about his life growing up in rural Ireland in the 1950s before there was television or electricity or cars or running water in the house.” Foley’s narrative is centered on Christmas and builds to a “very heartfelt and moving” ending.

Tomaseen Foley

“It’s really been gratifying to me to see it over the years,” said Coulter. “First of all, he’s honed his craft. It’s just gotten better and better. And watching audiences respond to this idea of basically just hearing someone talk in this age of short interaction of everything, and people just become completely involved and immersed in what he brings.”

Punctuating Foley’s tales will be a number of performances from Coulter and his fellow musicians and dancers. Coulter is one of the finest steel-string guitarists to ever come out of Santa Cruz, particularly in the realm of acoustic instrumental and Celtic music.

He’s traveled around the world and recorded extensively, beginning with his debut album on Gourd’s “The Road Home” and with the trio One Lane Bridge, as well as in duos with celebrated fiddler Edwin Huizinga, flute/whistle player Brian Finnegan, violinist Deby Benton Grosjean and others.

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This year’s presentation of “A Celtic Christmas” comes after a turning point in Coulter’s life. He and his wife, Erica, longtime Bonny Dooners, were among the many who lost their homes in the 2020 CZU fires.

Five months before the fire, when the pandemic shutdown first hit, Coulter was in Nashville, Tennessee, performing with the symphony orchestra there in a St. Patrick’s Day-style show he also does with Foley.

Returning home with all his gigs canceled, Coulter pivoted and decided to build an outdoor space in Bonny Doon, in line with pandemic protocols, where Erica could lead her yoga classes and Coulter could teach and perform. They built in a redwood grove near their home.

“You just look up and it’s like a cathedral,” said Coulter. “The deck was big. We had to build it big to keep people 6, 8 feet apart.”

That June and July, Coulter and Huizinga, performing as the duo Fire & Grace, did three live concerts in the new outdoor space.

In August, the Coulters were awoken one fateful Saturday night by an unusual lightning storm: “We sat out on the deck, looking out over the redwoods, watching this with some awe.”

Sunday morning came the first reports of fire, but Coulter said he was still not alarmed at that point. Within days, however, they were evacuated and couldn’t return to the property to see what, if anything, they had lost.

“We had time to evacuate,” he said. “We had both our cars full. We pretty much packed the car with everything we thought was valuable. But, you know, it was 3 in the morning and we were a little bit panicked. And it’s hard to know what to grab considering the limited space.”

Other than what the Coulters had packed into their cars, their home was “a 100% loss.” In a daze, they couch-surfed at friends’ homes and struggled to assess their losses.

“As time has gone on, it’s almost gotten harder because inevitably, every week or so … well, someone called me recently and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come play Irish drum with us on this track I’m doing for my record.’ And I’m like, sure, I’ll come. But then, wait. I don’t have an Irish drum anymore.

Santa Cruz guitarist William Coulter
(Via William Coulter)

“I had lost like four Irish drums. And this other local musician had loaned me this literally irreplaceable seven-string guitar made in Sweden that I was fixing up. And I saw him maybe six months after the fire and he said, ‘That guitar I loaned you?’ And I had completely forgotten about it, but it was under the bed in one of our rooms and it was gone. Bless his heart, he told me, ‘You lost a lot more than a guitar.’ So these things keep popping up on a regular basis. This thing has a long shadow.”

Another thing he lost? In 2005, he won a Grammy for his work in the compilation album “The Pink Guitar,” a collection of Henry Mancini tunes. That Grammy was also gone.

At the same time, because of the months-long pandemic pause to touring, Coulter had embarked on some long-delayed recording projects. By the time of the fires, he had already done a lot of recording.

After the fire, though, he “was forcing myself to keep my fingers moving, because it was so easy to feel like, ‘Why even bother?’ The first few weeks I didn’t even touch an instrument. Then, slowly over time, I knew that if I didn’t get back to it, it might slip away.”

A Celtic Christmas

When he returned to playing music, if not consciously then certainly subconsciously, he began playing Irish laments, “these really slow sad tunes that have this 100-year history of being played by people experiencing loss.”

The Coulters might resettle in Bonny Doon in 2022. Meanwhile, Coulter is back to teaching in person at UCSC. And he’s back to touring with “A Celtic Christmas” for the first time in a few years.

As for the spirit of his playing after losing almost everything in a fire, “well, the first thing that came out was not a happy jig.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Those came later.”

“Tomaseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas,” featuring William Coulter on guitar, comes to the Rio Theatre on Friday.

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