The Chieftains rule
January 9, 2007
BEAVER CREEK – In 1962, Vail opened and a little Irish group called The Chieftains recorded their first album.Both went on to become legendary in their worlds – skiing for Vail and traditional Celtic music for The Chieftains, who will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek.The band has gobbled up Grammys and Grammy nominations, among other accolades including an Oscar, like Vail has earned No. 1s over the decades.They have performed with everyone from rockers like the Rolling Stones to tony symphony orchestras around the world. They were the first Western musicians to do a concert on China’s Great Wall. They played for an audience of 135 million when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. They’ve toured for 45 years. They’ve made 44 albums, so far. They’ve done movies. You can catch them on YouTube.com.But this is their first visit here, as far as anyone can remember. What took them so long? Obviously not skiers, and leader Paddy Moloney will not be allowing anyone up on the slopes, in case of concert-risking injury, you understand. We all have our burdens, though missing out at skiing’s Valhalla seems like a particularly cruel blow.
Moloney, the founder, plays the uilleann pipes, a bit like the better known highland bagpipes except with more melodic sound and you don’t blow into them; they draw air like a bellows. Sean Keane’s on fiddle. Matt Molloy plays the flute. And Kevin Conneff handles the vocals and bodhran, an Irish drum that looks a bit like a tambourine and is a lot harder to play than it might look.These musicians – among Ireland’s very finest in any genre – form the core of the group that has had a lot to do with the resurgence of Celtic music and pride in America.Their sound is by turns jaunty and haunting. Warning: You might well feel like crying, laughing, dancing, and maybe even a bit feisty, under the influence of this music. That quintessential Irish spark in the eye comes less from the Guinness than the intoxicating traditional tunes of that land.Moloney promises quite the show Sunday at the Vilar, which is sold out. Beyond the core four Chieftains, the troupe will total 16, he said.The Chieftains have performed with about every big name musician and group you can imagine. But Moloney gets a particular kick out of nurturing young talent.You can tell it in his voice, which runs as fast as his pennywhistle at the height of a step dance. He is very keen on his special guests this tour, the young all-female group Liaden.”They’re just outstanding,” he said, extolling their vocal harmonizing, as well as musicianship. He’s hoping they take off like another young group that has performed with the Chieftains, the Corrs, who have sold some 60 million albums everywhere but the United States.They have step dancers who also play instruments, as well as an older form of Irish dancing than step dancing and the “princess of dance herself,” Cara Butler, who has performed with Riverdance, whose founder Michael Flatley danced to his initial fame with The Chieftains in the 1980s. The Chieftains played at Flatley’s wedding in October. And oh yes, if you are among that sold-out audience Sunday, you’ll be dancing, too. Count on it.A key guest performer is Irish harpist Triona Marshall, a short-term refugee from the RTE Orchestra touring with the Chieftains. As Moloney tells it, she is ever so thankful for the respite from symphonic work. The Chieftains U.S. tour runs through March; they have a couple of dates in Denver, if you miss them at the Vilar. The group will perform in Japan come spring, and then hit the festival circuit in Europe this summer.They’ve been touring for 45 years. Forty-five years. Is there an end in sight?
“God almighty, this is a boots-on job,” Moloney said with a big laugh. “I’ll go down with my boots on.”
Over the years, The Chieftains have seen a revival of Celtic music and pride. And truth to tell, they’ve played a big part of that in America. Their work has earned them 19 Grammy nominations, and they’ve won six times. So far.They, as much as anyone, moved the genre from a notion of ethereal singing in the clouds with a harp to the traditional, often rousing music it really is. Today “Celtic” touches folk, country, rock and even punk, if you count bands such as Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. Oh yeah, and there remain plenty of harps and ethereal vocals, too.Actually, the term Celtic might be more of a convention for Americans. Over 34 million of us claim Irish ancestry, about nine times the population of Ireland herself. Most of those 34 million really are misty isle mutts, a mix of Scots, Irish, Welsh with, sigh, a wee drop of English and American whathaveyou in the stew. They also make for one huge potential audience, and not just on St. Patrick’s Day. The traditional folk music out of these countries – along with Brittany in northwest France and Galicia, part of Spain – share much. Hence, the Celtic commonality that many traditional musicians accept with a bit of a shrug and frown.
The Chieftains play traditional music from these places, and they go further. American bluegrass and old school country are first cousins to the music Moloney grew up listening to and playing.Moloney seems to love nothing more than playing with American folk, country and contemporary stars, he and his group serving as old world music ambassadors. He began playing the pipes and pennywhistle as a child in County Laois, Ireland. His grandfather played the flute, and uncles played the pipes, he said.”It was our whole source of entertainment,” he said. He talked of house dances that lasted all night. His music just continued from there, although he and the band did not go full-time into performing until 1975.Of course, it’s been a long time since Vail opened and The Chieftains began their journeys. But Moloney has lost not a step, to listen to him or to see the group perform. We’ll see if the audience can keep up Sunday. If you are going, you might want to rest up and maybe skip the skiing for the day. You wouldn’t want to hurt something and miss the concert, not when it took these fellows nearly half a century to get here. Besides, it sounds like you might be getting plenty of exercise with this one, even with a nod or two to the harp and ethereal vocals and a chance to catch your breath. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 748-2920, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at http://www.vaildaily.com/section/BLOG