Place: Eugene, Oregon
Reviewed by: Seamus O'Laird
As Ireland's best-known musical export, The Chieftains have forged their reputation around a strong core group of Irish traditional musicians, supplemented by supremely talented special guest stars representing any and every genre of music on the planet. Along the way, they've jammed and recorded with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Sting, Ziggy Marley, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Sinead O'Connor and Elvis Costello, with consistently spectacular results. These days many Celtic groups try to play music in a multitude of styles, or invent Celtic-influenced fusion hybrids of their own, but not every traditional group attempting to bridge multiple genres can succeed with The Chieftains' signature grace and flair.
At a July 12, 2005 concert at the Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene, Oregon, The Chieftains were again up to their old genre-bending tricks. Not content to give a performance consisting exclusively of Irish traditional music, The Chieftains ventured far afield, even working traditional folk tunes of the American South into the playlist. The Cuthbert, a small outdoor venue in Eugene's Alton Baker Park, provided an intimate setting in which to see and hear The Chieftains perform their brand of magic at very close range.
Throughout the group's 43-year existence, The Chieftains have been led by the venerable Paddy Moloney, playing tin whistle and uilleann pipes, and acting as the perfect concert-night master of ceremonies. Rounding out the core members of the group are fiddler Sean Keane, bodhran player and vocalist Kevin Conneff, and Irish flute master Matt Molloy. Additional musical contributors to this 2005 tour include fiddler Jon Pilatzke, guitarist Clem O'Brien, vocalist Yvonne McMahon, and harper Triona Marshall. The latter should be applauded for her ability to step into some very large shoes. A legend like Derek Bell – the band's longtime harper, who passed on in 2002 – is irreplaceable on several levels; Paddy clearly misses his friend, jokingly referring to him as “Ding Dong Bell.” Fortunately, Triona Marshall brings more than enough talent to her role as Bell's successor on the harp and keyboards.
For many years now, The Chieftains have toured with ensembles of stepdancers, and this 2005 tour features the brothers Pilatzke (Jon and Nathan) dancing in the Ottawa Valley style, and Cara Butler displaying her well-honed stepdance technique – Americans may recognize Cara from her TV commercial for Folger's Coffee, “A Dancer's Morning.” In addition, two preteen girls representing Portland's Comerford School of Irish Dance, dancing in traditional finery, took the stage for two tunes.
The contrast could not have been more dramatic between Butler's precisely controlled “close to the floor” dancing style and the loose and wild Ottawa Valley style of the Pilatzkes (let's call their style “high off the floor”). Cara Butler's body and limbs stayed relatively rigid as she danced, while the Pilatzkes executed complex duets, their rubberized legs wobbling and buckling—each stepdancer moving to the dictates of his or her particular style.
The July 12 concert boasted many highlights. Any song involving one, two or all three of the stepdancers was a delight and scored heavily with the crowd. Kevin Conneff sang a stirring rendition of “Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore,” with its plaintive lyrics about the dangerous passage so many immigrants took from the shores of Ireland to Ellis Island. Clem O'Brien's spot-on vocals for “Wabash Cannonball” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” sounded like Clem had been born in the backwoods of Tennessee, not Dublin. “Rocky Road to Dublin,” the song The Chieftains recorded with the Rolling Stones, provided what may have been the evening's funniest moment: The band kicked off the tune with the opening riff from “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” played Irish style on traditional instruments. The crowd also appreciated the rare opportunity to extend birthday wishes to one of The Chieftains; Sean Keane celebrated his 59th birthday onstage, blowing out the candles on a chocolate sheet cake.
These highlights aside, the song that earned the Reviewer's Favorite award was “Sgaruint na gCompanach (The Parting of Friends),” which showcased sublime solo contributions by Matt Molloy on Irish flute. At times during the concert, it was difficult to make out Molloy's flute parts over Paddy's high, loud notes on the tin whistle, so this opportunity to hear the Irish flute all by itself was especially rewarding and most welcome.
Since their founding in 1962, The Chieftains have put out 43 albums, earning
22 Grammy Award nominations and six winners' statuettes. In his opening
remarks, Paddy feigned annoyance when he recalled losing a 2002 Grammy to
the Dixie Chicks, but he wasn't really fooling anyone. Paddy and The
Chieftains aren't in it for the money or the glory, but for the sheer
love of Irish traditional music. They show no signs of slowing down their
active touring and recording schedule, and the world is a much better place
for their persistence and decades of stellar musicmaking.