Music News & Reviews

Ireland’s The Chieftains are still sharing Celtic culture after 55 years

The Chieftains will perform Feb. 22 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.
The Chieftains will perform Feb. 22 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. The Chieftains

About a week before legendary Celtic band The Chieftains wrapped up their tour last March, Paddy Moloney fractured his ankle.

Rather than cancel the Chieftains’ remaining concerts and go home to Ireland to recover, however, Moloney insisted that the Grammy Award-winning group keep playing.

“I hobbled on (stage) and sat down and told everybody, ‘The show must go on,’ ” Moloney, the band’s co-founder and frontman, recalled in his light Irish brogue.

“The magic part (was) I did not have one ounce of pain when I was performing. … I even got up and took a bow,” he said. “Once I sit down and play, it’s marvelous.”

It’s that passion for sharing traditional Irish music with the masses that keeps Moloney and the Chieftains going after 55 years. The band returns to the United States this month on an anniversary tour that includes a stop in San Luis Obispo.

“Our show is bigger than ever,” said Moloney, whose band last performed here a decade ago. “We’ve got a great time (planned), let me tell you.”

At age 78, Moloney is the only remaining member of the trio of Irish musicians who formed The Chieftains in Dublin in 1962.

Moloney, who plays uilleann pipes, tin whistle, accordion and bodhrán, now leads a core group that includes flute player Matt Molloy and vocalist and bodhrán player Kevin Conneff. (Fiddler Séan Keane, remains “very much a Chieftain” but no longer travels overseas, Moloney explained.)

Accompanying the band on tour are fiddler/saxophone player Tara Breen, guitarist Tim Edey, vocalist/percussionist Alyth McCormack and harpist/keyboard player Triona Marshall. A few dancers – Cara Butler and brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke – will also join in the fun.

“They’re brilliant. They’re absolutely brilliant,” Moloney said of his tourmates, adding that they’re part of a resurgence of interest in Irish folk music. “You have these geniuses coming (up) – from pipe players to fiddle players to flute players. They’re all gasping for the opportunity to come out and play.”

Continuing a tradition that began in the 1970s, local group Canzona Women’s Ensemble will join the Chieftains onstage for three songs: the folk song “Shenandoah,” the immigrant anthem “Long Journey Home” by Elvis Costello and the haunting love song “Never Give All the Heart,” based on the poem of the same name by William Butler Yeats. The concert should be good exposure for the all-female vocal group, singing March 5 at Mission San Luis Obispo.

“We’re really thrilled to be invited” to perform, said Canzona’s Cricket Handler, who shares artistic director duties with co-founder Jill Anderson. “It’s going to be a fun gig.”

Recognized by the Irish government as “Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors,” The Chieftains have been spreading Celtic culture around the world since they started performing full-time in 1975.

The Chieftains played for more than a million people in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Dublin.

In 1983, the band became the first Western music group to perform on the Great Wall of China, and the first ensemble to hold a concert at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Just eight months after the Berlin Wall fell, the Chieftains journeyed to Germany to take part in Roger Waters’ historic concert “The Wall – Live in Berlin.”

The band’s reach has even extended to outer space. In 2010, then-NASA astronaut Cady Coleman brought Moloney’s whistle and Molloy’s flute to the International Space Station. Three years later, Canada’s Chris Hadfield joined the band live from the space station for a cover of “Moondance.”

Wherever the band performs, “The music itself is from the heart. It’s from the soul. It’s from the body,” said Moloney, the group’s chief songwriter and arranger.

Over the decades, the Chieftains have released more than 40 albums, winning six Grammys and teaming up with artists including Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones.

In addition to “Far and Away,” “Rob Roy” and “Gangs of New York,” the band can be heard on the Oscar-winning soundtrack of the 1975 movie “Barry Lyndon” — “I used up four or five sick bags to write out the tune” on a flight to Australia, Moloney recalled with a chuckle — and the Emmy Award-winning soundtrack of the TV miniseries “The Irish in America: Long Journey Home,” which first aired in 1998.

According to Moloney, the Chieftains’ upcoming concert will include many of the beautiful ballads, joyful jigs and riotous reels the band is known for – as well as cuts from its latest album.

For 2012’s “Voice of Ages,” “I thought I’d go forward a generation,” Moloney said, and bring newer indie rock, country and Americana acts such as Bon Iver, The Civil Wars and The Decemberists into the fold. “I enjoy coming together with those younger people. … These musicians and singers are just out of this world.”

For the Chieftains, who delved into country music in “2002’s “Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions” and explored Mexico’s music traditions in 2010’s “San Patricio,” recording “Voice of Ages” “was like going back into the real folk music again,” Moloney said.

According to Moloney, the Chieftains’ setlist “changes 50 percent each year.” Although many of the songs may be familiar to audience members, they each get a fresh twist.

“We will play the tune, but there’s going to be a different slant. There are going to be variations,” Moloney said. “I can never come along and (just) play the tune. I have to drive people a little mad and go the other way and just add to it. The whole band is like that.”

It’s clear from the mischievous note in his voice that Moloney still relishes his time onstage. And after 55 years with The Chieftains, he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

“I’ll go down with the boots on,” he said with a laugh. After all, he added, “I’m the guy who started the whole racket.”

Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains

7:30 p.m. Feb. 22

Cohan Center, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

$48 to $88, $38.40 to $70.40 children, students and Cal Poly faculty and staff

805-756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org

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