Even the most fanciful Irish imagination could not have predicted the extraordinary road that lay ahead for a fledgling band of young traditional musicians who had worked initially with the pioneering Sean O’Riada and his Ceoltoiri Chulainn ensemble.
When Paddy Moloney formed a group in 1962 to record for Claddagh Records in what was then presumed to be a once-off effort, they took their name from a poem by John Montague called “The Death of a Chieftain,” though with a more positive spin, and hence the Chieftains were born.
The new name not only defined musicians who were at the top of their game talent-wise, but prophetically also described the Band that for 50 years would play a massive leadership role in bringing traditional Irish music and musicians from the back and beyond to the greatest stages around the world.
They are celebrating that magical mark in 2012 with the release of a new CD and DVD called Voice of Ages and a 50th anniversary coast to coast tour of the U.S.
From the very beginning the Chieftains’ flair for arranging and presenting the ancient music of Ireland seemed daring and timely since the folk music revival was attuned to emphasizing roots music of all kinds.
What made the Chieftains unique at the outset was they had no singer in the band until Kevin Conneff joined them well into the 1970s, first as a bodhran player who was also a pretty good sean nos singer.
Their ensemble instrumental arrangements caught on in a huge way, and in 1975 a critical turning point was achieved when leader Paddy Moloney took the band full-time on the road and into the music business.
The diminutive and indefatigable uilleann piper and whistle player dreamed large, and a sold out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1975 was so well received the others were convinced they were on the right track as well.
Well managed and promoted by the loquacious Moloney, they plowed ahead full throttle destined for greater fame.
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Indeed they were as they have amassed a resume that is unequaled in Irish music, with 50 albums that have garnered 20 Grammy nominations and six Grammys, and also an Oscar for their soundtrack for Barry Lyndon featuring a reprise of Sean O’Riada’s “Mna na Eireann (Women of Ireland).”
Their body of work includes many great film and television scores as well. Their pioneering experimentation and collaborations have won them praise and recognition around the world.
Their inroads into China went back all the way to 1984, recording with Chinese artists and performing then in a more restrictive environ well ahead of the overtures between Ireland and China in these days of Culture Ireland diplomacy.
Their work with Celtic kinsman in Brittany, Asturias, Galicia and Appalachian blue grass and country among others helped foster greater interest in Irish music through its Celtic roots and branches as WGBH radio presenter Brian O’Donovan likes to call it.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Moloney (and co-producer T. Bone Burnett) decided that a new recording released this year should feature loads of young rising stars and bands that populate the “indie” recording industry, some of them Grammy winners in their own right.
You’ll find Imelda May, Lisa Hannigan, Pistol Annies, Bon Iver, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, the Decembrists, Low Anthem, Secret Sisters and Paolo Natini all falling under the Chieftains’ spell for some classic Irish songs and even some new material.
For hardcore Chieftains fans, there is even a “party piece” entrée a la their live stage concerts where a unifying tune (“Toss the Feathers” on the new CD) serves as an opportunity to highlight solo performances including a reuniting with flautist Michael Tubridy and tin whistler Sean Potts.
The 50th anniversary tour for the Chieftains is a 21-venue affair with the East Coast swing coming up this week and ending on St. Patrick’s Day in grand style at Carnegie Hall in New York City, their 20th appearance there.
On Friday night this week (March 9 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center) they will perform in Philadelphia where they will receive a special recognition from the American Ireland Fund for Lifetime Achievement.
On Saturday, March 10 it is Newark at the ornate New Jersey Performing Arts Center (www.njpac.org
phone: 1-888-466-5722) and on Monday, March 12 in Virginia Beach.
Look for them on the David Letterman show on March 13 along with Indie group Low Anthem, who will perform live also at Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 14 (with a special appearance on WGBH also) and also at the Carnegie Hall show on March 17.
On March 16 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, who last year shared some tunes on a Matt Molloy wooden flute and a Paddy Moloney tin whistle from the International Space Station, her home for six months, joins them live for this special appearance.
The tour also features superb musicians and dancers, many of whom have been with the Chieftains for over ten years led by Cara Butler (a 20-year featured stepdancer following in her sister Jean’s footsteps and also those of her teacher Donny Golden) joined by her husband, fiddler Jon Pilatzke, and his brother Nathan who are standout Ottawa Valley dancers.
Trina Marshall has played harp for 11 years after the passing of Derek Bell, and Scottish Gaelic singer Alyth McCormick plus bluegrass musicians Jeff White and Deanie Richardson are also part of the tour.
You can find out more about the tour and anniversary at thechieftains.com
Here's a trailer for The Chieftain's 'Voice of Ages':