Years ago, a concert by the Chieftains offered some foot-tapping, hand-clapping Celtic jigs, reels, dances, airs — and an occasional mournful ballad — that encompassed several hundred years of Irish history and Irish musical tradition; consummate musicianship, if not flashy showmanship. Paddy Moloney, master of the Uilleann pipes and several kinds of whistles, cracked a few jokes and introduced the music, but the show was mainly about the music.
My, how times have changed!
A concert by the Chieftains now is a vast variety of instrumental music, singing and dancing — Celtic and not — a grand entertainment from start to finish. Not quite a three-ring circus, but with the addition of a local pipe-and-drum band and a local Irish dance troupe, a pretty exciting, what-happens-next sort of evening.
Before getting too carried away with the showmanship, however, one must remember that the main point of the program still is the music, and the Chieftains rate highest marks for their ability to blend skill with creativity in a program of songs that might begin to take on an air of sameness in less skilled, less creative hands. The instrumentation alone creates a bit of an obstacle, because Irish pipes, whistles, flutes, drums and fiddles do not necessarily permit finely nuanced playing.
But the current lineup of Chieftains has the musical chops to bring it off. Moloney continues to be a focal point, as do two other veteran Chieftains: Matt Molloy on flute and Kevin Conneff on bodhran (and lead vocals). To this mix, in recent years, have been added American guitarist Jeff White and American fiddler Deanie Richardson, Canadian fiddler and dancer Jon Pilatzke and Irish harpist Triona Marshall, as well as Scottish soprano Alyth McCormack, American step dancer Cara Butler and Canadian step dancer Nathan Pilatzke. Jon and Nathan are brothers; Jon and Cara are husband-and-wife.
The music also has not left tradition in the past, either, and often brims with steadfast devotion to Eire and its culture. For example, the Chieftain's most recent recording, "San Patricio," a joint effort with Ry Cooder, blends Celtic with Mexican music to tell the story of Irishmen conscripted into the American army in the 1840s to fight against Mexico; sensing a greater cultural and religious alliance with the Mexicans, they switched sides and fought against the United States. Augmented by the Wake and District Pipe Band (at least 10 pipers and six drummers), the ensemble played a stirring "March to Battle," while White sang Cooder's plaintive ballad, "The Sands of Mexico."
The Chieftains' musical palette has broadened considerably over the years, as shown by the growing number of non-Irish, non-traditional performers who have appeared on recordings and in concert. Thus, the Raleigh program, played before an enthusiastic audience in Memorial Auditorium, included on the one hand Conneff singing a humorous Irish ballad, "Ellen Brown," while on the other hand, White sang and played the old standard, "Wabash Cannonball." Richardson offered a highly double-stopped bluegrassy rendition of "Summertime," and McCormack brought her small yet beautifully pure voice to the really sad ballad, "Carrickfergus," and several Gaelic "mouth music" pieces, sung in Gaelic and in quick tempo. "The Rocky Road to Dublin" by the entire group included two brief references to the introduction to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," and Jon Pilatzke played a Quebec fiddle tune, "The Bird in the Tree" — in a version in which he did Ottawa Valley step dancing while seated! His brother and wife joined him in the dance, also while seated.
A real musical highlight of the entire evening was Triona Marshall's Celtic harp music. While the harp (smaller and perhaps a bit more metallic-sounding than a larger classical harp) tended to get overpowered by the full ensemble, her solo pieces and solo passages were a real delight. Rarely would you hear better harp playing than hers on "Farewell to Music" and "O'Carolan's Concerto." The first is a slow but intricately picked melody; the latter a much livelier piece. Her chords and arpeggios were beautiful; her glissandos were shimmering.
As they do in many concerts, the Chieftains closed the program with "An Dro," a bright Breton tune in which the local pipers returned, along with the dancers from the Trionoide Academy of Irish Dance of Raleigh, who led a lively dance line around the auditorium, picking up audience members along the way.
For nearly 50 years, the Chieftains have been giving the world terrific doses of traditional Irish music. Pinecone-the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music and Broadway Series South deserve highest praise for bringing these outstanding lads (and lassies) to the Triangle.