It has often been said that music is an international language.
Regardless of political and physical boundaries, status, race and creed, the melodies and harmonies that are conceived from inspiration, nurtured into notes and finally released into the air to be shared with the world, can transcended all these barriers.
And, if there is one musical group that has most embodied this ability, and proven to be masters of it, over the past half-century-plus, it is the legendary Irish band, The Chieftains, and they are not slowing down.
In their 53rd year as a group, the band is still spreading its gospel of Irish folk music as it did when the band formed in 1962, the same year The Rolling Stones began.
Six-time Grammy Award-winners, the Chieftains have never rested on their laurels as the most prolific Irish group in history. Yet, it would be easy to fall into that persona considering the band was, among other things, the first Western band to play on the Great Wall of China (1983), the first group to play in the U.S. capitol, and even played in front of an intimate gathering of one million people for a concert for Pope John Paul II in 1979 at Phoenix Park in Dublin.
"It took me a few years to find the right balance, the right sound, and using only traditional Irish instruments to achieve that because that was what the music was about," explains founder and only remaining original band member Paddy Moloney. "It led to the sort of Chieftains sound that we have, and it will continue to be in that respect."
The journey Moloney, now 76, and his band have taken has been a long and adventurous one. It is has led them to embark on a 17-date U.S. tour that provides them a return visit to the Valley, descending on the Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts on St. Patrick's Day.
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The list of artists who have collaborated with the band include Luciano Pavarotti, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Tom Jones, Elvis Costello, Sinead O'Connor, Ziggy Marley, Madonna, Bon Iver, Miranda Lambert, Paolo Nutini, Willie Nelson, the Civil Wars, The Who, and most notably, Van Morrison.
A native of Donnycarney, a small village in Dublin, Moloney came by music naturally, as his grandfather played flute and an uncle performed with the local marching Ballyfin Pipe Band.
Moloney would play and record with noted Irish musicians Seán Potts, Michael Tubridy, and Martin Fay in the late '50s, and they along with Sean O'Riada, would be known as, Ceoltoiri Cualann first. By 1963, Moloney then recruited many of this gathering including also Peadar Mercier to record a one-off album entitled The Chieftains on Claddagh Records.
The recording would have a restrained and stripped down sound, and yet ironically many critics looking back would consider it, modern for the times. And yet, within a few years follow-up releases would showcase a more soulful sound that would become the trademark of the group for years to come.
Over the course of the next 10 years the band would begin to find its popularity begin to spread, in as much as they were still performing as a part-time gig. Then, in 1975 the band was asked to compose music for the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon, which would not only garner the group an Academy Award for Best Movie Soundtrack, it opened the floodgates of popularity in the U.S. Day jobs were no longer necessary.
For any international music star, it is a rite of passage to performer or even better yet, record with the Chieftains, and that is what drew the interest of Moloney and his group to begin what has now been decades of the star-studded collaborations and support of the British media.
"We've had all these great admirers, in particularly in the '70s and playing Albert Hall for the first time, and being voted by Melody Maker as Group of the Year [in 1975, beating out the likes of super groups the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones]." And John Peel, the number one disc jockey was playing us."
In the band's 1997 authorized biography by John Glatt, Moloney recalled the inevitably paths that the band would cross with Irish rock star Morrison, which would also promote the band to a wider and younger audience. It was the on the band's 18th studio album,Irish Heartbeat
in 1988, that Morrison loaned his soulful pop vocals.
"I think at that time Van was searching for his Irish roots," Moloney was quoted as saying in the band's 200 biography by English author John Glatt. "It was this man of blues, of rock 'n' roll, jazz and more importantly soul, coming home to his Irishness with The Chieftains and the music we'd been playing for so many years. Musically we were going to meet each other half way."
The most successful of collaborations would come with the 1995 release of The Long Black Veil, which saw the band work with Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Ry Cooder (for the first time), Mark Knopfler, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and others.
It would be the band's highest ranking album, peaking at 17 on the Billboard charts. The Morrison song "Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)," which would spotlight the magical fretting of harpist Derek Bell would accord the group the Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaborations with Vocals in 1996.
And, for as much as the band thrived and it would also survive tragedy.
It was while on tour with The Chieftains in the Fall of 2002 in Phoenix that Bell died of a cardiac arrest. Bell was already an accomplished oboe, piano and harp player before joining the group in the early '70s, and he would be the first of three Chieftains to pass away. Fiddler Martin Fay and tin whistle player Potts would pass years after leaving the band.
"We share jokes about Derek. There's hardly ever a day goes past there's a mention of him, he was a very eccentric guy," Moloney notes about Bell, who had a penchant for wearing Looney Tune socks at performances." But we have great memories of him playing three decades with us."
Over the course of his illustrious career, Moloney has received three honorary doctorates, Mexico's Ohtli award, the country's highest cultural award, and countless other accolades. All this, and at one time Moloney's mother was concerned with her son's future.
"She always wanted me to be a civil servant, you know," Moloney says of his mother, who bought the young Moloney his first plastic tin whistle when he was 6. "She said to my wife at one stage, 'Things are going great ... but the curious thing about Pad is he's having to go out, he can never find himself a decent job."
The government of Mexico wants the band to come back down through its country to help it celebrate the 40th year of the two establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Moloney's efforts have been acknowledged for strengthening ties between 'Ireland and Mexico. The impetus behind his getting the Ohtli, which is Mexico's highest cultural award to citizens outside of Mexico, was the 2010 release of the Chieftains' San Patricio album, for which The Chieftains worked with a diverse group of musicians such as Moya Brennan of Clannad fame, Linda Ronstadt, Latin musical groups Los Cenzontles and Los Tigres del Norte, singer-actress Lila Downs, Carlos Núñez, and legendary Latin singer, the late Chavela Vargas.
The band would move forward and enjoy celebrating its 50 years of existence, with the release of their most recent album, Voice of Ages, in 2012. Moloney recruited rock producer T-Bone Burnett to land some of the talent that would that would have a decidedly Indies flavor.
The album included songs with: The Civil Wars, The Decemberists, the Pistol Annies (which included Miranda Lambert), Scottish pop star Paolo Nutini, and even U.S. astronaut Cady Coleman, who played on a Moloney tin whistle while on the International Space Station. Former Chieftains and fellow founding members Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy even joined in, as did a very busy Justin Vernon of Bon Ivers.
While most legendary musicians in the age range of Moloney and mates Molloy, Keane and Conneff are heading into the twilight of their careers, Moloney is not slowing down despite the pace and Moloney saying, "We don' have to look for work now."
"Matt [Molloy] is always going so hard and pushing all the time and I say to him, 'God, Matt, you're gonna kill yourself; You're killing us as well. Slow down a bit," he says with a jovial Irish laugh. "But there has been no talk of retirement for us. Our tour for next year has nearly been signed off on and ready to go, and we are already working on 2017 in Japan with the symphony orchestra in Tokyo. Every day there's something brewing."
One thing that keeps him going is his tireless desire to play and collaborate.
"There are so many ideas and requests. I just need to have my home space and get me act together." he says ironically as one of the busiest musicians on the planet. "I am very interest in the young people, and children, and the new musicians coming out. I just want to have opportunities to have them on stage, and bring them on tour. I think that's essential. I am just hoping the good man upstairs will give me time to get to a few things."
And for Moloney and thousands of Chieftain fans across the globe ,that would be more precious than a pot of gold.
The Chieftains will bring a large entourage of performers with them. Moloney plays the uilleann pipes and tin whistle, Matt Molloy plays flute, and Kevin Conneff sings vocals and plays bodhran. Veteran fiddle legend and band member Sean Keane is back home in Ireland. Complementing the band will be a quartet of artists who have played with the band for more than a decade. The group includes Cara Butler, who along with husband Jon Pilatzke and his brother Nathan Pilatzke, bring their world-renown Ottawa Valley step-dancing talents to the performance. Triona Marshall plays harp/keys; she has recorded on four of the band's latest platinum-selling albums. Also in the fray will be BBC award-winning guitar virtuoso Tim Edey and vocalist Alyth McCormack, who has worked with U2's the Edge; fiddle and sax player Tara Breen; and accomplished banjo and mandolin player Martin Murray.
The Cheiftains are scheduled to play Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, March 17. Tickets are sold out.
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