Musical Musings: The Chieftains

The Chieftains at Luggala House in 1974.

The Chieftains at Luggala House in 1974.

So which group represents Irish traditional music in the modernity better than any other group? Skara Brae though they be short lived? The Bothy Band? The Boys of The Lough? The Horslips? (Just kidding on the latter though they do definitely add something to Irish trad music. What they add makes for a lively debate!) In the end, there is but one choice: The Chieftains.

As one of our staffers said, ‘The Chieftains! Everybody’s favourite Irish band. Everybody’s! I recall the first time I heard them. It was on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s stately and luscious Barry Lyndon. I was running to the record store the next day. I had discovered some music that linked me to my own Irish roots. That theme, called ‘The Women of Ireland (Love Theme from Barry Lyndon)’, is on this new collection, and still has that unmistakable attraction. The harp, fiddle, bodhran, pipes, simple straightforward production, and virtuosic playing. In 2004 I checked out a small music shoppe in Limerick and there on the walls around me were all the tools of The Chieftains’ trade. ‘Come to th’ pub t’night,’ the fellow behind the counter offered, ‘There’s a session.’ Ireland is all about music. And The Chieftains are all about Irish music.’ Now go read the rest our review of Chieftains: From The Beginning from a look at them when they started oh so long ago. As with many groups, I prefer the pure drop material they did later on before it became fashionable (and one assumes profitable) to incorporate everyone from Johnny Cash to Sinéad O’Connor in their recordings.

An Irish Evening and The Long Black Veil are two looks of the band performing, though only one is worth seeing as our reviewer notes here: ‘There is one major fault with An Irish Evening. At just an hour long, it’s far, far too short. I want more! On the other hand, The Long Black Veil comes in at 46 minutes, and that’s plenty. Unlike An Irish Evening, this is not a concert recording, but a documentary about the making of the collaborative album The Long Black Veil.’

If you’re so inclined (and you should be), there is a rather complete authorized biography available both as a book and an audiobook. Our reviewer addresses the question of which format is best: ‘Hmm… audiobook or print version? With the print version come more pictures, and a much easier reference, if one is curious about something. And of course not all readers will appreciate the imposition of another narrator, having their own inner narrator that suits them just fine. Those with an extensive Chieftains collection may wish to read their authorized biography with the album of their choice playing in the background. On the other hand, it’s fun to hear the interviews, and one can listen in the car. Of course, the next generation of audiobooks, with pictures, interviews, and hopefully indexes and search capabilities, will solve this dilemma. In the meantime, take your pick; they both have limitations and advantages. One advertisement for the audiobook lists it as abridged, but the narration is largely true to the prose in the book based on my limited experiments of listening and reading. Since I read the book after listening it to it, Nanci Griffith remains the narrator, even for the print version!’ Lest you wonder why her as narrator, Nanci Griffith has performed with this group.

And I’d be sorely remiss not to not give you a review of the band performing live. Just read the lead-in to a look at a summer concert by them: ‘Ah, summer…that wonderful time of year during which music enthusiasts rejoice at the proliferation of outdoor concerts, multiplying the options for taking in a good show many times over. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for a real gem of a performance one recent gorgeous evening when The Chieftains took the stage at the Scene Pavilion in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The Chieftains combine a superb musicianship with charm and style that leaves the audience hanging on to their last note, begging for more. In their 42 years of existence they have earned themselves six Grammys, recorded over 40 albums, continue to tour every year. They are widely recognized as some of the best known ambassadors of Irish music.’

Now I’m going to surprise I hope by contradicting my earlier comment about disliking the various guest vocalists used on their albums by selecting their album, Irish Heartbeat, with Van Morrison as my favourite album by them. Why so is summed up nicely by the reviewer: ‘This music is Ireland. The two styles of Morrison and the Chieftains crash together in a blend that is not traditional Irish in the manner of The Chieftains; neither is it Morrison’s Caledonia Soul. It is something else, something new, perfectly Irish, perfectly musical.’

Let’s finish off with The Chieftains playing “Cherish the Ladies” as recorded from an FM broadcast in Düsseldorf, Germany, on January 25, 1978. Lovely, isn’t it? Your next pint of Guinness is on the house.

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