By Dennis Polkow
If it’s anywhere near St. Patrick’s Day, you can bet that the Chieftains are not far away. You might expect the traditional Irish band that is the walking symbol of Celtic culture across the globe might want to play back home for the occasion, but of course, it’s only the rest of the world that goes green and gaga with celebrations.
“Dublin is celebrating it big these days,” says group founder/leader Paddy Moloney in his familiar brogue, “but mainly since they copped on to what happens over here in the States. We grew up with St. Patrick’s Day being a church holiday, but it’s a massive secular celebration over here, and we hit it in a big way, while American bands are now going over to march in the Dublin parade.”
The further irony is that while the Chieftains are known and loved across the globe as Ireland’s musical ambassadors, back home their accomplishments are by and large greeted with apathy when they are noticed at all. “The papers there might put in U2 or somebody,” says Moloney, “but because we’re doing Irish music, they’re not inclined to report on it; they can’t come to grips with it. They know the recognition we have over here and in other countries, and if something goes wrong, they’ll print it on the front page. Even starting out in my teens playing pipes, I took slagging at work and at school, you know?
“But ‘I had a dream,’ as it were, that one day Irish music would break forth out of the clasps of Hollywood, and that people might finally know about and enjoy what they thought they didn’t want to know about Irish music. Even our own people had a complex about it.”
Moloney has seen his dream prosper in a way that he never imagined fifty years ago when he put the first incarnation of the Chieftains together back in 1962. The group set the all-time record for largest live concert attendance—over a million people (“It was the Pope’s gig, though,” laughs Moloney), put out a string of best-selling albums and soundtracks, toured the world, won six Grammys and an Academy Award and have been sought out to perform with a who’s who of music across genres from Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Sting to the Rolling Stones.
As virtuosic as they are chameleon-like, the Chieftains are as at home playing with symphony orchestras as they are playing with rock and blues artists. And bluegrass and country are fine, too, as is jamming with traditional instruments of other countries and continents, whether South American or traditional Chinese instrumentalists, as they did on every stop of the group tour of China. (“One of the larger Celtic countries,” quips Moloney.)
“We want to get rid of all those shackles and inhibitions about music,” says Moloney. “Musicians are musicians and they know what it’s all about. We’ve broken a lot of barriers, and if anybody starts to become ‘heavy,’ there’s plenty of other great musicians around the corner.”
The group began with seven members and the personnel were fairly fluid for those first concerts and albums, as most members held on to day jobs in those early years. By 1975 when the group recorded the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” the lineup had solidified and by and large remained intact as a sextet until the 2002 death of harpist Derek Bell—”Ding Dong,” as Moloney used to fondly refer to him on stage—and the subsequent retirement of fiddler Martin Fay. The group continued on full steam ahead as a quartet, although fiddler Sean Keane no longer tours with the group. “Sean is a recording Chieftain, not a traveling Chieftain,” Moloney explains, “although he does play two or three gigs a year with us back home.”
Now billed as “Paddy Moloney & the Chieftains,” spotlighting the consistency and popularity of group founder, frontman, arranger, composer, tin whistle and Uilleann piper Moloney over five decades, flutist Matt Molloy and singer and bodhranist Kevin Conneff have been part of the core lineup since the 1970s. Fiddler and dancer Jon Pilatzke, however, Moloney says, “is as much a Chieftain as anyone,” and harpist Triona Marshall has also become a regular, raising the question of whether or not there could be a full-scale female Chieftain, the Irish word for patriarchal “leader” and the group name implying a group of leaders. “There are the Chieftains and then the young chiefs,” says Moloney, which also includes vocalist Alyth McCormack, guitarist and vocalist Jeff White, touring fiddler Deanie Richardson and dancers Cara Butler and Nathan Pilatzke.
One Chicago performer that used to dance with the Chieftains that went on to have his own stellar career in “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” is Michael Flatley, “so you never know what can happen to those young chiefs.”
The group released “Voice of Ages” (Hear/Concord) late last month, produced by Moloney and T Bone Burnett, with features by the Chieftains collaborating with performers from the worlds of indie-rock (Bon Iver, The Decemberists, The Low Anthem), country and Americana (The Civil Wars, Pistol Annies, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers) and Irish and Scottish folk (Imelda May, Lisa Hannigan, Paolo Nutini), among others. “With fifty years behind us,” Moloney says, “what better way to look ahead?” And whatever musical territory the Chieftains wander off into, observes Moloney, “it’s always a hoot.”