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CD Review: The Essential Chieftains

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If there’s a lack of green in your wardrobe, consider loading The Essential Chieftains on your iPod this St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate your Irish side … and avoid any unwanted pinches. This new two-CD, sprawling anthology features the best of Ireland’s leading band. For novices unsure where to begin with the band’s approximately 40 albums over the past four decades, The Essential Chieftains is the place to start.

Ireland’s musical ambassadors to the world, The Chieftains have displayed an impressive diversity over the years, with roots stretching back to 1963. Founding member Paddy Moloney (a master on the pipes, tin whistle, and accordion) joined up with Sean Potts, Martin Fay, Kevin Conneff, Mick Tubridy and Derek Bell to form the most famous Chieftains lineup. This compilation focuses on their work from the 1960s to 2003, collecting for the first time together their work on several different record labels and creating a much better hits package than the earlier Best Of The Chieftains. Harpist Bell passed away in 2003, but the remaining four current Chieftains are still going strong, touring America’s East Coast even as I write.

The Essential Chieftains is nicely split into two complementary discs: “The Chieftains’ Roots,” focusing heavily on more traditional instrumentals, jigs and reels, and Disc 2, “The Chieftains and Friends,” which includes collaborations over the years with a cast of all-stars including Sting, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne and many more. Some Celtic music purists decry the band’s “mainstreaming” with such work, but to my mind their willingness to take in new sounds and influences and open their doors to a wide variety of guests only strengthens their sound.

If you’re wanting that classic pipes-heavy, cheery Irish bounce, Disc 1 offers it in spades. Founding member Paddy Moloney, who also oversaw the production and remastering of this compilation, is on fire throughout The Essential Chieftains. The man can play the pipes. Disc one features a variety of traditional Irish melodies as arranged by Moloney, such as the rousing “O’Sullivan’s March” and the anthemic “The Bells of America.” The Chieftains also created the Academy Award-winning score to Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” an excerpt from which is included here.

However, I lean slightly more toward preferring Disc 2, as it’s got the sound of a slightly tipsy, mad all-star jam that lasts for hours, and the many voices contributing to the Chieftains sound gives it a nicely diverse feel. Particular highlights include Van Morrison’s clarion voice on “Shenandoah,” Irishwoman Sinéad O’Connor on the magnificently epic “The Foggy Dew,” and Skaggs’s countrified turn on “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” You’ll also find The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Béla Fleck and Nanci Griffith popping up on Disc 2.

Part of the fun of The Chieftains is their open-hearted egalitarianism; it’s a band where Marianne Faithfull can lend her mournful croon to a lament like “Love is Teasin'” and the sugary Corrs can sing the bubble-gum pop of “I Know My Love,” and the two very different tunes each work on their own terms. The Chieftains long ago reached beyond Ireland’s borders for influences – you’ll find guest stars like a Chinese ensemble in a track from 1987’s The Chieftains in China, or a Spanish flavor to the jaunty “Guadalupe,” which features guest spots by Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt. The Essential Chieftains has such an all-star feel to it I had to check to make sure I didn’t miss a star turn from Puff Daddy.

The booklet with liner notes by Robert K. Oermann includes a fine recap of the band’s storied career. Chieftains aficionados will appreciate the survey of their career this 35-track set offers, but it’s perhaps even better for newcomers — who can get a healthy sampling of one of the leading popularizers of world music.

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