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The Chieftains

Review by Joseph Sherman

As Celtic flutist extraordinaire Matt Molloy eases into the truly haunting strains of “Women of Ireland,” a favourite of the late harper Derek Bell, I am relieved to realize that The Chieftains have not gone career-hard and ubiquitous. They play relatively few original numbers, but what they do with O’Carolan compositions and scores of other Celtic melodies, ancient and less so—42 years on in the ensemble’s progress-without-climax—retains the power to move and motivate. And emotions be welcomed.

The youngest member of the four remaining core members is singer and bodhran player Kevin Conneff, and he’s no juvenile. Leader/uillean piper/whistle player Paddy Moloney, master fiddler Sean Keane, and the estimable Molloy are discernibly aging men, but their mastery of instrument and musical tradition is so liquid and sublime, there’s a revelation each time they let go. They don’t appear so passionate en groupe, but become intense when taking their solos; the music is marrow-infusing. And if they’ve become fabulously rich (fair dibs—possibly only U2 is a wealthier Irish band), these musicians would be playing even if there was no recompense. It’s how they became what they’ve become.

The Chieftains are rare in the biz—almost universally revered for their ability and sound and for the generously sly manner in which they have made musical crossover into its own solid sub-genre. Moloney has traveled the world looking for Celtic musical connections, and when they aren’t obvious he adapts; China? We already know that Basque and Breton musical traditions are webbed with those of the Scots and Irish and Welsh, but Moloney has sussed out the Celtic roots in traditional American music—cowboy and hill country and roots—though he’s not the first. It makes such sense when you hear it played. And if the crossover recordings sell best because of the c&w and rock stars who join the boys in the studio (e.g. Van Morrison, Ricky Skaggs, Sting), it never sounds forced.

That’s partly because the Chieftains continue to make it fun. No small task. I could do without much of the showband banter that characterizes their live performances, but it’s also an infectious experience not to be found on CD. These are generous musicians who invite younger up-and-comers from all over the world to sit in with them on tour. For a seriously aspiring string player or stepdancer, such an opportunity has to be a gig of gold.

Derek Bell’s unexpected death didn’t result in a replacement Chieftain being given his chair. I reckon that, at their age, it’s easier to share the wealth within the core, and pay contract musicians to supply the desired tonalities (Bell was a superb harper, keyboardist and tiompan player, and is, in effect, irreplaceable). They know who to work with to stoke the sound.

I’ve written about my love of Celtic music; it feels like the perfect antidote to anything sour and dour. I cared little while growing up in Cape Breton, but found the Chieftains 2 LP in the mid-‘70s and began collecting. Damned if the group isn’t now introducing elements that seduced me over to Planxty and the Bothy Band (Matt Molloy’s the only musician to have played with all three), with their rhythm-section inclusion of bozouki and guitar, because there on the Grafton/Queen stage last month was a slick-pick guitarist making up the mix. The very early Chieftains relied exclusively on fiddle, pipes, whistle and an underplayed bodhran, until Bell was drafted, when the textures deepened by several notches.

Paddy Moloney, the sprightly impresario who also composes and arranges for film and special events, inculcates peripateticism. He and his mates could retire and simply run the pubs they’ve no doubt bought with their earnings, but their adventure continues. So, thanks to them, does ours.

It’s been a corrugated summer for some, but I moved out into a perfect night to listen to a transporting concert of familiar but heartening music being performed to the denizens of the open air. The younger musicians on stage were well-chosen grace notes; the stylish dancers dandy. But the four core Chieftains issued the oxygen. Just what the doctor ordered.

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