Emerald Guile

Exploring a variety of the world's folk traditions with daring aplomb, the Chieftains continue to draw on a musical well that looks as if it may never run dry

The problem isn't what to say about Ireland's remarkable Chieftains, it's where to begin. And, as Paddy Moloney might say, when in doubt, one simply begins at the beginning.

In 1963, piper Moloney, late of the traditionalist folk group Ceoltóiri Cualann, recruited a band of fellow musicians in order to preserve and explore the rhythms and melodies of Irish folk music, played on the traditional folk instruments. Prior to the mid-1960s, the world's dominant perception of Irish folk music was based on groups like the Irish Rovers or the Clancy Brothers -- contemporary Kingston Trio-style topical songs, with the occasional bawd or boozer thrown in. The band Moloney assembled, by contrast, was something of a folk music supergroup. Among their ranks, the Chieftains numbered many of the top folk players in Ireland, and when they sat down to perform -- often using no more than pipes, fiddles, the bodhrán (a hand-held framedrum) and whistles -- the most unbelievable tones emerged from their coalition, the very sound and soul of Ireland's deep musical history.

After two records, and during a crisis point in contemporary folk in 1970, the Chieftains reached something of a fork in the road. "We had, oh, all manner of record companies approach us with all kinds of ideas, y'know, 'If you'd just put a couple of guitars into the band,' and all that." Moloney considers this for a moment, 30 years later. "It might have become something else, it might even have been something wonderful," he continues, "but it didn't suit us, certainly, at the time. We had the opportunity to be rock stars." From within his ample laughter, he manages one more word: "Imagine!"

The Chieftains, from left, Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff, Sean Keane, Derek Bell (in front) and Martin Fay.
The Chieftains, from left, Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff, Sean Keane, Derek Bell (in front) and Martin Fay.

Imagine: 39 years, 36 albums, six Grammys, 18 Grammy nominations including one this year for 2000's Water From the Well, and one Oscar (Best Film Score for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 Barry Lyndon). Following their decision in 1970 to remain a semi-professional, part-time band rather than modernize the sound they were developing, the Chieftains earned a reputation that brought stardom to them nonetheless. And finally, of course, the Chieftains went pro.

"Perhaps that's one of the reasons we get such respect from actual rock musicians," Moloney says thoughtfully. "Sticking to the folk music the way we did, early on. Now, you could certainly say, 'Oh, come off it now, traditional? What're you doing recording with the Rolling Stones?' But Long Black Veil, the album where they guested . . . it's a lovely song, that. And they gave such a beautiful interpretation."

Moloney's referring to the past five years of the Chieftains' recorded work, give or take, a half-decade during which it seemed every musician in the world was lining up to collaborate with them. 1995's Long Black Veil was the first crossover project, featuring guest performances by the Stones, Sinéad O'Connor, Ry Cooder, Sting, Marianne Faithfull and Van Morrison (on the Grammy-winning "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?"). In 1996, the gorgeous Santiago -- a band favorite -- featured Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt and classical guitarist Eliot Fisk on a journey through Celtic music's connections with the music of Spain, Portugal and Cuba. On 1998's Fire in the Kitchen, they recruited and spotlighted some of the best young performers from Canada's Celtic music scene. 1999's Tears of Stone, a follow-up to Long Black Veil, boasted a staggering roster of women vocalists including Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Loreena McKennitt, Natalie Merchant and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Water From the Well, released last year, is a similarly collaborative project, but this time the Chieftains returned home to find the sounds they wanted. "No real 'star' names on this one," says Moloney; but a hefty collection of Irish musicians showed up to lend them a hand, "and these fellows are the Charlie Parkers, the Miles Davises of traditional music and song."

At its heart, Water From the Well is an audio tour of contemporary Irish folk, as performed in various locations and regions throughout the country. Of the several dozen conceptual ideas for their most recent release, oddly, this particular project was scheduled to appear a bit farther down the line. "In fact," Moloney reports, "it wasn't intended to come out this early at all. It was just an idea I'd had; but on account of the millennium and all, we thought maybe it'd be nice to take a little ramble around Ireland, and hear what was happening.

"See, one of the beautiful things about the music on this wonderful island we've got, you go 40 miles down the road, and you'll hear the same tune played just a bit different. I was at my niece's wedding just after Christmas this year, and at the reception, y'know, it's usually keyboards and saxophones. But at my niece's wedding, it was bodhráns and pipes, fiddles and flutes. And it was young people, right? Young people, not the old ones, so you see our worry among the older set about traditional music dying out, it hasn't happened. It's the younger ones now taking it up. And I'm happy to think we contributed a bit to that."

They contributed more than a bit, of course, because in addition to being yeoman musicians, the Chieftains are utter workhorses, whose intense recording and performing schedule over the past 40 years would deplete the reserves of men half their ages. The road show in support of Water From the Well is a similarly boisterous affair, and Moloney's words trip and tumble over one another as he gleefully fails to fit it all into a single description.

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