The Chieftains, Through A Long Lens

A 40th Anniversary Concert, Lincoln Center, NY

Irish Musicians: The Chieftains
Irish Musicians: The Chieftains

Preparing to attend our 9th straight Chieftains St. Patty’s Day concert, we wondered: “Who’s been playing longer – the Chieftains or the Rolling Stones?” Some quick research showed that it’s a close call. Though the Chieftains didn’t release a record until 1964 several of them played together under a different name as early as 1960. The Stones first appeared as a group in January 1963, but had made a demo in 1961. A small edge, we suppose, goes to the Irish lads.

There’s no doubt, however, that “the Chiefs,” as fellow musicians call them, have a firm grip on the same “worlds greatest” status in Celtic music that the Stones have in rock n’ roll. Over the past 40 years, they’ve had more success than anyone else in carrying traditional Celtic music to a worldwide audience.

Way Back When

When the Chieftains first set out, this level of success seemed unimaginable. The group sprang from a traditional music revival that began in Ireland in the late 1950’s. It’s architect was Sean O’Riada, a now-revered man who, among other things, shocked people back then by drawing connections between Celtic and Indian music. O’Riada had already gained attention by writing Celtic-flavored music for Irish radio shows in 1960, when he formed a “folk orchestra” called “Ceoltoiri Chualann.” It included Paddy Moloney, fiddlers Sean Keane and Martin Fay, and it became the basis for the Chieftains. This group got many Irish people excited about their own traditional music for the first time. Up to that point, the Irish scene had been dominated by relatively slick, commercial-sounding records. But under Sean O’Riada’s guidance, Ceoltoiri Chualann took a new approach to traditional Celtic music that drew a broader audience to it.

Tradition Reinvented

As described in June Skinner Sawyers’ excellent book “Celtic Music, A Complete Guide,” O’Riada was a restless composer and musician who wrote orchestral pieces and, later, liturgical music. Working with Ceoltoiri Chualann, O’Riada introduced the idea of improvisation into traditional Irish music, a breathtaking innovation now practiced by almost every major Celtic band.

He was also the first to have traditional music played by a group. Outside of Ceili dance bands, it had always been a solo art in Ireland. According to Chieftain’s leader Paddy Moloney, before O’Riada’s innovations, there were lots of musicians playing traditional music in Ireland, but nobody listening to it.

In 1964, Moloney and friends broke out on their own, and adopted “The Chieftains” name, making four albums between 1964 and 1974. But they were only semi-professional musicians during this time. Their breakthrough came with a soundtrack recording for the film “Barry Lyndon” in 1975, which gave them worldwide recognition. Since then, they’ve done a string of albums and concert tours that’s sent them far and wide, both geographically and musically. By the time of the Chieftain’s success, however, O’Riada had left Celtic music. Sadly, he died at age forty in 1971. Of O’Riada’s influence, Paddy Moloney says, simply, “we have remained faithful to his model.”

Mixing It Up

The Chiefs have gotten tremendous mileage out of Sean O’Riada’s idea of blending Celtic with other world musical styles. In nine years of New York concerts, the’ve brought in a steady stream of guest performers, creating combinations that range from interesting to a little bit nutty. You can always expect to see a great young fiddler sitting in at a Chieftains concert. The best ever? We think it was Eileen Ivers, the American, who delivered a blistering performance one year on her trademark blue fiddle (prompting my father to lean over in mid-concert and blurt out “the way she keeps playing and playing – it’s like she’s never going to stop .

An extremely successful touch in 1996 was a bag piper from Galicia, Spain, playing songs from the “Santiago” album. You didn’t have to be a musicologist to feel the connections among Spanish, Cuban and Irish styles. On the other hand, a guest in 1999, “Yat Kha” from Touva (near Mongolia), was so unorthodox that we felt a bit flummoxed. This duo, looking for the world as if they’d left their Yaks parked outside Carnegie Hall, combined a Jimi Hendrix-like guitar with a highly eccentric and traditional style of Tibetan singing where the vocalist produced two different notes at the same time. A friend couldn’t help but jibe “it sounds like a bull who’s swallowed a whistle.”

Party Boys

The Chieftains can definitely play their instruments, but they haven’t succeeded only on musical skill. Their strong hand has always been an ability to generate a party atmosphere. As fans know, 2002 was the year Derek Bell passed away suddenly. Bell’s smooth, educated-sounding harp and keyboard playing were matched only by his loud-colored socks, unmodern Irish-teacher suits, and general lack of respect for the seriousness of any occasion. He seemed like a big part of the party. Additionally, last year, Martin Fay had stopped playing with the group, apparently due to retirement. We missed Fay’s understated, mournful solos.

We put our doubts aside, however, and decided to give The Chiefs another shot. After all, the concert was now an annual pilgrimage involving aunts, uncles, friends and friends of friends who might otherwise go out and get into some real trouble on St. Patty’s Day. A packed Avery Fisher Hall greeted the lads (it hadn’t seemed sold out the past few years), and we’re happy to report that they can still kick-start your Celtic bones. Getting right to the heart of things, Paddy Moloney began the show with a solemn, unaccompanied tribute to Mr. Bell on his penny whistle that quieted the audience instantly. As it ended, my aunt leaned over and practically gasped: “How can he play like that on a little piece of tin I’ve no idea.

Pub Atmosphere

As always, the concert was structured a bit like a music competition in a local bar. One by one, each band member took his turn leading the band, with guest-artists interspersed. After the somber start, the Chieftains quickly let out their “show biz” with a wild, kneecap-challenging tap dance routine from Canadian brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke. In mid-song, they were joined by Donny Golden and the statuesque Cara Butler, traditional Celtic dancers from New York who’ve performed at every show we can recall.

As in last year’s show, the guest players were bluegrass musicians. We’re not wild about the Chieftains’ current turn through American music, showcased on their CD “Down the Old Plank Road.” Somehow the Celtic seems to disappear into the bluegrass. In concert, however, we did like Caroline Lavelle, the first cellist we’ve seen who looks like she belongs in a honky-tonk, and guitarist Chris Jones, who did a high-charged rendition of the classic “Orange Blossom Special.” Tall, lanky Sean Keane played three fine Scottish reels. We’d interviewed Keane way back in 1978, when the group was just starting to tour on a constant basis. An unassuming man who was glad to take out his fiddle to entertain us in his hotel room, he said the problem with endless travel, simply, was that “we eat like birds.” Keane, who first played professionally at age 14 and once studied classical music, remains as good as any fiddler we’ve heard.

Kevin Conneff followed with a favorite of ours, the vocal “An Poc Ar Buile,” a oddly epic-sounding song about goats in Kerry (from 2000’s “Water From The Well”). Then came Matt Molloy, with one of his hard-blowing flute solos that always remind us of a jazz saxophonist. Molloy, from Roscommon, worked as an airline mechanic before becoming a full-time musician. He played in The Bothy Band and Planxty, two well-known Celtic groups, before joining the Chieftains in 1979. The Chieftains always save Molloy for the end of the concert – and he’s worth the wait.

Flying Solo

In spite of advertisements proclaiming an appearance by Elvis Costello, there were no celebrity guests this year. After the 1995 CD “The Long Black Veil,” with its guest vocals by Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and other stars, the Chieftains went through a stretch when they were decidedly “hot.” Sting was a few rows from us in the audience. Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell were working with them in the studio. From this period, we’ll always remember the night Joan Osborne joined them onstage for an absolute knockout performance of “Raglan Road” (from “Tears of Stone”). Other guests over the years have included the ethereal and beautiful Sissel, a Norwegian singing Italian arias, Art Garfunkel crooning, not very well, with his look-alike young son, James Galway, on flute, and an endless supply of dancers ranging in age from about 6 to 65.

The thing we’ve missed lately are Paddy Moloney’s rousing solos on the ulian pipes. He’s seemed less inclined to show off his virtuosity on this instrument than he once was. The show’s finale, as always, brought so many musicians and dancers onto the stage that it looked a bit dangerous up there. As a friend said: “It’s so Irish, the way they throw in everything but the kitchen sink.” The Chieftains’ determination to carry on drew a big ovation, and a new mark on our 2004 calendar. We’ll be back next year.

Sean O’Riada story from “Celtic Music, A Complete Guide,” by June Skinner Sawyers. Da Capo Press, 2000.

Recommended Chieftains

Down The Old Plank Road Concert DVD 2002 (BMG/RCA Victor)
The live Irish/Bluegrass concert has more punch than the studio-made CD. Highlights include Earl Scruggs, proving again that after they made him, they threw away the mold, and Jerry Douglas’ beautiful dobro work on “Rosca Catha.” As for Martina McBride doing the tear-jerker “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” we can only say that nobody who looks that good.

The Chieftains (1) 1964 (Claddagh Records/Atlantic)
The original lineup, working in a more austere traditional style.

Tears of Stone 1999 (BMG/RCA Victor)
We’ve always preferred this CD to the more popular “Long Black Veil.” Best moments include “The Magdalene Laundries,” a great song co-written by Joni Mitchell and Paddy Moloney, Natalie Merchant’s moody rendition of “The Lowlands of Holland,” and a strange, droning version of “Danny Boy” by Diana Krall that shouldn’t work, but does.

Santiago 1996 (BMG/RCA Victor)
Celtic mixed with traditional influences from Galicia, Spain and Cuba.

Water From The Well 2000 (BMG/RCA Victor)
An upbeat, energetic tour of Ireland’s regional music styles. Includes a haunting a capella version of “The May Morning Dew” sung by Kevin Conneff.