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

"I think we're going to have an interesting little program for you," he says impishly. "We'll have a few special guests, the lovely Joan Osborne will be there, we've performed with her now for a couple of years, and she's going to give us her interpretation of 'Foggy Dew,' which we first performed with Sinéad O'Connor a while back [on Long Black Veil]. And then of course the beautiful Natalie MacMaster is going to be onstage with us, what a doll; seven years ago she first guested with us. We're going to have an Irish flamenco guitar player, if you can believe that, and dancing we'll feature very much, as always; the full complement! We're even going to have some of your local people come up and join us for some music and dancing. You see, this is the real thing! Not that Riverdance business!"

(Don't read any undue venom into that last comment; Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance himself, is a friend of the band who began his career dancing in the Chieftains' live show. But Moloney, who is self-effacing and charming beyond the telling, can't resist poking fun at himself and his mates, despite the awe they seem to induce in their fellow musicians. For example: "BMG [the Chieftains' label since 1989], I like to say they're devils for punishment. You'd think by now they'd be saying, 'All right, boys, it's been fun, but you're looking a bit ragged.' But they just signed us on for another five albums, lucky for us." And us as well.)

"About, I'd say, 60 percent of the music in the show will come from Water From the Well. Oh, and we'll have to do some from Santiago, we couldn't get away without doing that." Nearly four decades on, it's evident that the Chieftains still savor the thrill of live performance: "The most challenging part of it all, and the most joyful, is going onstage. You never take an audience for granted." Moloney is happy to say that, with the exception of a single event, the Chieftains have unfailingly netted an enthusiastic reception wherever they've performed. (The sole blot on an otherwise spotless record occurred at some long-ago corporate dinner -- a performance whose captive audience, Moloney dryly reports, was composed mostly of "yuppers.") "We went right onstage almost immediately after this album, and to hear people say, 'Three years ago, that was the best I'd ever heard you guys do, but this is better than that' -- when you hear that, it's very encouraging. And it's nothing to do with rehearsing. It's a mental thing, blending, listening, letting each man come forward as it takes him and getting in the right mind."

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.

The infectious spirit of that enthusiasm lifts Water From the Well into joyous heights; on a few tracks you can actually hear the band members shout happily and egg each other on as they play. "I even had to reduce those in the mix," admits Moloney a bit sheepishly (Moloney has produced every Chieftains album, from their very first recording in 1965 straight through to Water). But in a way, they're the most delightful moments on the record. That a group of players can take this much pleasure in the sheer act of making music together, after four decades -- that's a frankly remarkable thing to hear. "To do the whole thing," Moloney finishes firmly, "was a joy."

Assembled over 10 days in various spots throughout "this beautiful island," as Maloney frequently phrases it, the tapes that became Water From the Well went with him to Massachusetts, where his son was graduating from MIT with a degree in rocket science ("The first Irish rocket scientist!" he jokes proudly). The final mix was accomplished in Boston over three weeks.

"There's never any great masterpiece intended . . . I suppose if there was, we'd take more than 10 days to do it in, but that's the way we've always worked it." Intentions aside, the Chieftains have received their 18th Grammy nomination on the strength of Water, in the category of "World Music," a term Paddy Moloney, for one, finds a bit frustrating.

"It pigeonholes the music, not that there isn't wonderful music coming out under that term. Peter Gabriel's doing great work, for example, promoting it. But we've been doing this kind of thing all our lives; it's just where they put us this year, I suppose. [The Chieftains have in fact been nominated, and won, in several different categories throughout their career.] We worked with Indian musicians in the 1960s in London, performing live, but we weren't allowed to record it, of course. One just didn't do that in those days, you see. But 'World Music' puts a certain kind of music in a special slot of its own. A lot of other things, more local things, get lost. I think it should actually be 'Great Music From Around the World.' And it's thousands of years old; I recently read where they've discovered pipes made from human bones, made thousands of years ago, d'you know that? That's folk music, that's it! Do you know there are Japanese pipe bands? There's a Japanese band that plays the pipes, wears Irish kilts. They follow us around sometimes, it's fantastic. A lot of that kind of stuff, it falls through the cracks."

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