The Chieftains, that legendary institution of Irish traditional music, have just marked the 35th anniversary of their first North American tour – with yet another tour.
After forty-four years together as a group, forty-three albums, and six Grammys the group’s appetite for music and performing is showing no signs of abating.
And its leader and frontman, Paddy Maloney, says that another Chieftains album should be released in September.
The tour, which began in Portland, Oregon, in February, finishes up today, St. Patrick’s Day, in Toronto.
In January, Paddy Maloney told Irish Central that compared to previous tours, this one would be easier going. “It’s not as bad as it used to be,” he said, speaking over the phone from his holiday home in Naples, Florida, a place he has been vacationing with his wife Rita for many years. “It used to be something horrific – we’d do maybe five months on the trot. So on account of age and the whole business of travel, we’ve had to pull back and we are looking at something like two days on, two off.”
Unsurprisingly for a group whose career has spanned more than four decades, the Chieftains have seen many members come and go over the years. (Indeed, one of the core members, the harpist Derek Bell, passed away suddenly in 2002.)
But according to Maloney, who still speaks with a thick Dublin accents and whose speech is punctuated with laughter, there is “some new blood” touring with the band, which helps “keep things fresh.” Scottish singer Alyth McCormack, for example, now tours with the band. “We have her singing in Spanish,” said Paddy, “Doing a lovely version of ‘Guadalupe.’”
“We also have these guys we’ve kept our eye for many years, the Pilatzkes brothers from Ottawa Valley. Jon is the most incredible fiddle player. And we have Cara Butler – sister of Jean, who of course started her career with the Chieftains – who is dancing better than ever.”
The forthcoming Chieftains album, said Maloney, will be heavily influenced by Mexican music. “It’s a project I have been interested in for around 20 years,” he said. A conversation with the Mexican Ambassador to Ireland about the San Patricios, a group of Irish soldiers in the U.S Army who switched sides in the Mexican War in the 1840s, led Maloney to develop an interest in Mexican history and culture.
He added that Ry Cooder, a previous Chieftains collaborator, who will also feature on the forthcoming album, gave him “great encouragement” to make the album. Linda Ronstadt is another old Chieftains friend who will appear on the album. Willie Nelson has also shown “great interest” in the working with the band on the album, although Moloney stressed that this had yet to be finalized.
Having collaborated with such an incredible array of musicians and singers – Mark Knopfler, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Nancy Griffith, and Sinead O’Connor, to name but a few – it seems as if Maloney is always on the lookout for new artists to work with. But he says that this is not necessarily the case. “It’s not like I go out there, saying, ‘God, look at him, we should do that. I would never come along and impose on anyone – unless it meant something musically, unless it belonged to a project, and that’s why this Mexican thing is ideal for it. I wouldn’t have Paul McCartney on it, for example.”
However, Maloney adds that he narrowly missed out on working with Bob Dylan a few years ago – “But maybe someday...”
What then, would Maloney say is the secret to the band’s longevity? “There’s one thing no matter what people say or think – we’ve never departed from being traditional Irish musicians. Now, you might say, ‘Come off it! Sure you’ve played with The Rolling Stones and so on. But that was them doing some of our stuff, rather than the other way around.”
Finally, I ask Paddy Maloney, who will be 71 in August, if retirement ever crosses his mind.
“My wife said ten years ago that I had been in rehearsal for retirement the previous ten years!," he replied. "But it is very, very difficult. I mean I have never really slowed down, to be honest. I never have to look for work – it just comes to me. I’m always on the go.”