Chieftains: Iconic band offers all Irish all the time

Even though the Chieftains have more than earned their keep as the world's top traditional Irish ensemble– their website is irish.com, and the government even gave them a state-sanctioned official position in 1989– they're still circling the globe and introducing new generations of fans to a rich cultural tradition, making them arguably the most important Irish musicians since the nameless souls who wrote the tunes hundreds of years ago. 

To that end, the most recent of their 40-some albums have gone Santana, employing marketable pseudo-folky artists to Trojan horse the band into the ears of listeners who might otherwise have turned up their noses. And although there are times when they can get buried by the Jackson Browneyness or Nickel Creekery of the collaborative pieces, the fact that they can build a workable hybrid at all for music mired in centuries of nationalistic pride is worth a nod of respect. 

Frontman Paddy Moloney is still pushing musical boundaries– and, more importantly, pushing his young proteg├ęs– as hard as he's pushing 70.

The Hook: You've been doing this for so long... What could possibly be new at this stage in the game?

Paddy Moloney: After our 45 years together, our government back home put us on a postage stamp. It came out before Christmas. We're hoping to have them on sale as merchandise.

The Hook: Are you allowed to do that?

Paddy Moloney: They absolutely loved to have it out there as merchandise. We purchased them, and we're entitled to sell them and pass them on to people.

The Hook: Governments can be weird about that sort of thing.

Paddy Moloney: I suppose they can. I take me chances. They've regarded us as musical ambassadors for many years, but we still have to pay our taxes like everybody else. We've got a very good minister for the arts– O'Donahue, his name is– and he's been putting a lot into music and the arts in general and recognizing what could be done. This year they gave some grant to a young group called Liadan. They're in their 20's and graduated from the University of Limerick in Music– Limerick is the university where we're the musicians in residence. These young girls, Liadan, were a bit nervous at first, but their singing is superb, and their playing of instruments– whistles and fiddles and accordion and harp– so I bring them on at the end of the first half. It broadens our whole show; we have 17 people on stage during the evening. They're beautiful girls, so it's a good boost for us old fellows.

The Hook: That's a great way to pick an opening act.

Paddy Moloney: Well, we bring these dancers, the Pilatzke brothers, with us too. It's jigs and reels, but it's not the stiff Riverdance thing. It's very let loose, legs going everywhere. Two years ago we played at Elvis Costello and Diana Krall's wedding at Elton John's house, but when the Pilatzke boys were dancing, Mr. McCartney– Paul, that is– couldn't hold back, and he joined in. Up he went, legs going everywhere.

The Hook: You're the "official musical ambassadors," according to the Irish government. How does one land that gig?

Paddy Moloney: Ten or 15 years ago, there was a funny attitude about it for a couple of years. I think people had to come and experience it for themselves, and the recognition for where we were and what we continue to do– the appreciation from younger bands– came out. We kind of paved the way. They wouldn't begrudge us, but they thought it couldn't be that hard– "If the Chieftains succeeded, so can we." It's not that easy. 

The Hook: It seems that you guys might have been the definitive musical ambassadors long before they gave you the title. If you had to pick a date, when would you say it happened?

Paddy Moloney: I would have thought that happened in the mid '60s– recognition in the newspapers from the likes of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull and Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers attending Chieftains concerts. Sometimes you have to go abroad first. Irish music wasn't very popular in those days. I think from an international point of view, we started to travel in the '60s. And John Peel, who was a #1 disc jockey in Europe at the time, was playing us alongside the Beatles in his radio show.

The Hook: Do you have a preservationist mission?

Paddy Moloney: Very much, now. That's why we've been going out of our way to help younger musicians. We've set up a scholarship and we try to get them on tour with us. You can do so much on paper and around your own locality, but the real world is to get out and experience showbiz. You might have 50 percent followers, but you have to sell that other 50 percent of the house. We get that at every show.

The Hook: You've definitely done albums that deviate from that, though.

Paddy Moloney: We were always being slagged a bit for doing collaborations with Van Morrison or whatever, and I think they all kind of choked when I did the Long Black Veil with the Rolling Stones. I didn't go at it as just playing the jigs and reels; I tried to bring out another color. Everyone in the band is an out-and-out traditional musician. For us to do anything else would be a step down the ladder, even playing with the Stones. Seventh-five or eighty percent of our concerts are totally traditional. The remaining 20 percemt is just connecting with other musicians. We made 25 solid traditional music albums before touching anything else or collaborating with anybody. It's always coming back to traditional songs and traditional Irish music. 

After the Long Black Veil, we went back and did Celtic Harp. We won a Grammy for Long Black Veil, and then we bring out music from 1790, and that won a Grammy as well. How many albums of traditionalist music do you want to do? We have 45 albums. Keep coming back to it, but dabble a bit.

 

The Chieftains visit the Paramount Theater February 24 at 8pm. $74/$69/$66/$63.