It seems as though the Chieftains have been together since St. Patrick got rid of the snakes, but actually it’s only been 40 years. And nobody can say that the venerable Irish group hasn’t changed with the times. Not content with carving out their own niche in the Celtic folk genre, the lads began collaborating with other performers and swimming in strange waters years ago – the Stones, Van Morrison, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Ry Cooder, to name a few. Now they’ve turned to Nashville, in the wake of the Grammy-nominated Down the Old Plank Road. If the recording wins in the best contemporary folk category, it will be the seventh award on the Chieftains mantelpiece, one for each of them and a few left over. And it’s not just the luck of the Irish. The group is as good today as it ever was.
Down in numbers but not in energy, the Chieftains lost a cherished mate, longtime harper Derek Bell, in October. The current tour is dedicated to his memory. In spite of the loss, there are more people onstage than ever before. The January 21 Berkeley performance, a celebration, a jamming love-fest and an Irish wake in the jolliest sense of the term (sans the booze), featured a gaggle of guests, notably the young and good-looking country singers Allison Moorer and Chris Jones, who also played guitar. The lovely Caroline Lavelle chimed in on a cello that featured some impressive classical chops and there were assorted step dancers in trios, quartets and pairs and a local harper and whistle player who wandered in from time to time. The result, which the Chieftains call “global roots music,” had the audience clapping its collective hands and stamping its feet long into the rainy Northern California night.
Masterful in ensemble, comfortable together as an old pair of boots, the core members each got a chance to shine alone. Founding member Paddy Moloney, whose uileann (a kind of Irish bagpipe) gives the group its distinctive sound, also toots a mean tin whistle and offered a lovely lament in memory of Bell. His running commentary and comic asides, long familiar to Chieftain aficionados, spiced things up between numbers – and sometimes during. Kevin Conneff, who joined up in 1976, plays the bodhran, a kind of drum and is the chief vocalist for the group. His solo a Capella rendition of “May Morning Dew” solidified that position early on and he subsequently chimed in with both Moorer and Jones. Sean Keane, who debuted with the group at the 1968 Edinburgh Festival, is a fiddler for all seasons. Beginning studies in the classical tradition, he eventually segued into the reels and jigs of Irish traditional music and he plays them in a way that’s hard to take sitting down. Matt Molloy, the newest Chieftain (1979), plays the flute. Boy, does he ever play the flute. His solo on “The Kerry Fling” was an astonishing exercise in acceleration. It left the audience breathless although Molloy seemed to have wind to spare.
The step dancers, led by Donny Golden and Cara Butler, included Canadians Jon and Nathan Pilatzke (who brought their own freewheeling style into the mix), as well as several members of a San Francisco troupe. They were amazing: Riverdance and then some.
Sure and it was a grand evening altogether, a forget-the-Prozac-and-lose-the-blues-naturally kind of night, St. Paddy’s Day a couple of months ahead of time. Hail to the Chieftains. Long may they rule.