Long before Lord of the Dance or Riverdance, long before bars sold green beer and Guinness was sold in a can, Paddy Moloney mastered the pipes and the tin whistle, and in doing so, started a career that would last over 40 years. Before World Music was in vogue, the Chieftains had already been there and back.
In December of 1963, Moloney gathered together the most talented traditional instrumentalists in his native home of Ireland, and from there they started out on a journey that would take the green hills of Ireland to the great halls of Europe and China to the recording studios of Nashville where, with Chet Akins and Willie Nelson, they would record Another Country, one of their six Grammy-winning albums. If you have never been touched by the sounds of the harp, flute, pipes and fiddle, then lend your ears to something that will surely change your mind and open your world.
I first discovered the Chieftains, or should I say, they found me, in 1984, on what was then a little-known cable channel called A&E. I was up at around two in the morning, because back then to see a hockey game in Southern California, your only recourse was A&E, which would show a replay of the third period of the last game broadcast that night from wherever. I waited half-asleep in a comfy chair with the channel selected in case I dozed off. I had hoped my New Jersey Devils would appear, but a different conjuring took place. Strange music I had never heard before affected me like some strange siren call. I can see myself now hopping around my small den, at 2:30 in the morning as Moloney and the boys played a slip jig. I still have no idea what that is, even though I have been a fan since that fateful night. (My vivid memory is accentuated because I kicked a chair accidentally and busted my big toe).
The Essential Chieftains collects the work from over 40 years of not only traditional Irish folk music, but also traditional folk music from all around the world. Playing since the early ‘60s with oddly only an American cult following for the first few years, they began to break out in 1975. That year they provided the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which spawned some radio airplay for “The Women of Ireland,” the film’s love theme.
Even when breaking away from traditional Irish folk, Moloney and the band showed their gifts as instrumental composers and arrangers. A career highlight happened at Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where the band opened for Pope John Paul II, who along with 1,350,000 others where entertained by sounds of the Chieftains. “We were just the opening act,” Moloney said. “The Pope was the headliner.”
The first disc is the Chieftains at their best because it features their roots. It is a summary of what they have done from instrumental pieces like “Lots of Drops of Brandy,” “O’Sullivan’s March,” and “An Poc Ar Buile/The Dingle Set” sung in the Gaelic tongue to “The Green Fields of America,” an a cappella ballad describing the flight of immigrants from the Irish shores to their new homeland across the ocean.
That song is followed by “Santiago De Cuba,” a Latin rhythm set that would make Pancho Sanchez proud. Others such as the “French March” and “Chasing The Fox (from The Ballad of The Irish Horse)” show how well the Chieftains have blended the sounds and instruments of other cultures into their own sound. These are some of the reasons the Chieftains have lasted for so long and have been heard by so many.
The second CD is a treasure in itself, entitled “The Chieftains and Friends.” The names alone give me goose-bumps: Sting, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Los Lobos and of course, some of Ireland’s own treasures. The first song to start off sees them joined by with The Corrs. Andrea’s voice lifts you off with this Spanish-Irish love song. “Shenandoah” with the legend Van Morrison follows it; its soft gospel sound plays against the rolling fiddle and flute letting the river run through you mind.
“The Long Journey Home” with Elvis Costello and the choir Anuna stray not far from the Irish tradition, but use a full of the Irish Film Orchestra (conducted by Fiachra Trench) gives one a feeling of patriotism whether you are Irish, Italian, or a red-blooded American. To finish off the set is the song “Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor” done with The Rankins, the first part sung in Gaelic followed by English. Its simple cords are played by the harp and fiddles and with the flutes and tin whistle filling in, the voices of Cookie, Heather and Raylene Rankin bring the Chieftains back home once again.
For anyone who loves world, or Irish folk music, The Essential Chieftains has it all, because Moloney and the Chieftains have it all. For a band who had found their small niche in the music world, little did they know back then what doors they would be opening today, and I for one, look forward to what they will have to offer tomorrow. If it is as half as good as what they have given us now, then the Chieftains will do just fine.
You know I will be enjoying the green this St Patty’s Day.
Written by Fumo Verde