Tempus fugit. Time definitely does fly. It is hard to believe the Chieftains have been around for half a century. Since their formation they have brought Irish music to audiences all over the world. As well as playing the usual major venues they have played at the Great Wall of China, played for Pope John Paul and were the first group to give a concert in the Capital Building in Washington, DC.
Despite their longevity and my enthusiasm for Irish music I never saw them live until March 2, 2013.
Founding member Paddy Moloney was still very much in charge as could be seen at the beautifully restored Coronado Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Dubliner Paddy plays the uileann (elbow) pipes and tin whistle. The distinctive sound for which the Chieftains is renowned was Paddy’s creation. He carried it in his head for several years before he teamed up with musicians who made it a reality. That sound has been integrated with music from many lands, cultures and traditions from all around the world. It is constantly evolving. There are no Chieftain clones and never will be.
Flute player Matt Molloy came to the Chieftains via the late and much lamented Bothy Band. The group was in the process of developing their own unique sound when they burned out. The partying overshadowed the music and after four glorious years they disbanded. He hails from County Roscommon and now lives in County Mayo. His pub in Westport is a mecca for musicians and tourists alike.
Dubliner Kevin Conneff is a vocalist and also plays the bodhrán (skin covered percussion instrument). Originally a jazz enthusiast he played with several well-known Irish musicians before joining the Chieftains in the seventies. He also sings in the traditional unaccompanied sean nόs style. He now lives in County Wicklow – the “Garden of Ireland” located on the doorstep of Dublin.
Alyth McCormack grew up on the Scottish island of Lewis and has toured the world with many musical groups. After recording with several musicians she released her first solo album in 2000. Her vocal talents include “music of the mouth” – a rare tradition of people performing dance music with their voice when musicians were unavailable. There are very few people who have mastered that particular talent. Alyth is also an accomplished actress.
Cara Butler has been dancing since she was six years old. She seems to have mastered the art. American viewers have seen her on Late Night with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on more than one occasion. She has appeared on commercials and with several artists of various musical genres. American audiences accustomed to being exposed to conservative and regimental Irish dancing around Saint Patrick’s Day are somewhat taken aback by Cara’s freestyle dancing. Irish viewers smile and acknowledge that dancing was meant to be fun for the participants and entertaining for the viewers.
Nashville Bluegrass fiddle player Deanie Richardson has a busy life. As well as touring with groups and musicians she runs a music school. She teaches fiddle, guitar and mandolin to an upcoming generation of musicians.
Jeff White is also based in Nashville and he is also a fiddle player. As well as bluegrass he is accomplished in just about every type of music it is possible to play on a fiddle. He also plays guitar and sings. His music career includes accompanying Alison Krauss and Union Station in the eighties. Jeff is also a song writer and his creations have been recorded by several well-known artists.
John and Nathan Pilatzke are from the Ottawa Valley of Ontario, Canada. The award winning dancers perform both on their own and as a duet. Greased lightening is not as fast as the feet of the Pilatzke brothers. They make the audience want to join a school of Irish dancing. Both have appeared all over the world and been featured in several TV shows.
Triona Marshall, from Portlaoise in the Irish midlands, has her roots in classical music. She played with the RTE Concert Orchestra before touring with the Chieftains. She fits right in being interested in exploring various musical roads.
There was a brief video presentation showing Irish-American astronaut Cady Coleman playing a tin-whistle and flute on Saint Patrick’s Day. Members of the Chieftain loaned the instruments to her. Nothing unusual about that except for the fact she was floating weightlessly above Earth on the International Space Station in 2011. Wow.
The City of Rockford Pipe Band and the McNulty Irish Dancers joined the Chieftains on stage at the Coronado. They fitted in well and looked as if they performed with the six-time Grammy winning Irish group every day. The grand finale when all the performers appeared on stage together was only equaled by their call-back. “Have ye no homes to go to?” joked Paddy Moloney after the standing ovation.
It was interesting to observe people arriving at the upper reaches of the Coronado. There was the occasional Aran sweater and tweed cap among the casual attire. There were some familiar faces that appear whenever any artist with Irish connections visits. People arrived with an air of expectancy and anticipation knowing the Chieftains concert would provide both familiarity and originality. They were not disappointed. It is the Chieftains’ style to remain on stage for the entire duration of the concert while the guest artists enter and exit for special numbers. One never knows what is coming next. Even familiar renditions have a smattering of changes and new ideas. Every Chieftains concert has a little bit of a feeling of a work in progress.
That is what keeps it fresh for over half a century.
Oh, and thank you for showing the Coronado audience what a four-hand set dance looks like.