The Cheiftans celebrate at Symphony Hall

A review of The Cheiftans at Symphony Hall on March 13, 2009

, Contributing Writer

Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains could be said to have had a major part in inventing what we now call “Celtic music.” Almost fifty years ago, the group was formed to perform the music of Ireland and they have done so without a break ever since, bringing traditional Irish music to audiences around the world. Along the way, they have recorded soundtracks, tribute albums, albums of weddings and Christmas music, and the cross-genre blockbusters with a tremendous array of guests. In the process, they have worked in the strands of other genres, Western Classical harmony, synthesizers, and other elements that turn a traditional music into "Celtic music." They have thus managed to straddle a fuzzy line, acting both as practitioners of traditional music and as canny, crowd-pleasing entertainers dispensing a marketing gimmick.

That the members of the band are all excellent musicians in the Irish tradition is undeniable. The group’s youngest and most recent member, Matt Molloy – not quite 65, he joined the band in 1979, before many of their more recent fans were born – is both one of the best flute players and one of the best musicians in Irish music, and has played in some of the key Irish groups of the last half-century and recorded some fine albums on his own as well. Sean Keane (who is sitting out this tour, unfortunately) is an excellent fiddler, whose solo playing is sadly under-represented on recordings. Kevin Conneff, the group’s bodhan player, is also a fine singer. And of course, Paddy Moloney is one of the best-known living exponents of the uillean pipes.

It is also hard to deny that the group knows how to entertain, and that they take that role seriously as well. Since their 1995 smash album Long Black Veil – with performances by, among others, Sting, Sinead O’Connor, and the Rolling Stones – they have been recording albums featuring rock, pop, and country acts as well as more traditional Irish albums and collaborations with musicians from Canada and Galicia. These collaborations have revealed Moloney’s knack for pop music, which, oddly enough, was evident at Symphony Hall on Friday night when Moloney, Molloy, and Coneff were joined by a few dozen of their closest friends for an intriguing mix of traditional music and variety-show extravaganza.

Moloney is clearly aware that there are two competing impulses which he must contend with in a performance. His audience includes both the “pure-drop traditional” crowd, who would prefer to hear the four full members of the band playing traditional tunes, with an occasional song, and the larger and more lucrative “rest of the world” who prefer Celtic music to the Irish stuff. In addition, there is his very real interest in musical traditions beyond the Free State and the Wee North, traditions which do not have a natural constituency in either audience. He deals with all of this in perhaps the only way possible: leaping from branch to branch, giving each group what it wants just long enough to keep them happy, bridging the gap as best he can between the groups. And, well aware that audiences today require over-stimulation, he adds in some dancers every so often and marches guests on and off the stage to keep things moving. Above all, he keeps the pace up, so nobody ever has a chance to get bored.

The band, of course, played excellently. On tour, the full members of the band are joined by Canadian fiddler and dancer Jon Pilatzke, harpist and keyboardist Triona Marshall, and Jeff White and Deanie Richardson of Nashville. White and Richardson (guitar and fiddle) seemed to be mostly there for the American numbers, and while they held their own in the Irish tunes, their playing seemed rather stiff and forced all night. Pilatzke, however, played quite well considering he’s a Canadian, and Marshall’s solo turn on two harp pieces by O’Carolan showed that she’s listened to the late Derek Bell, the former harpist for the band. And there were moments of brilliance: Molloy’s playing of the great air “Easter Snowe” was stunning, and Conneff’s singing of “The Flower of Magherally” was in the finest tradition of singing, clean and simple, “telling the song” in the old style. Unfortunately, the distractions of the production tended to overwhelm the brilliance. Marching a pipe band on the stage is a great piece of showmanship, as is good dancing or a guest singer, but when these things are coming and going on every number, it becomes difficult to focus on the music.
I suppose, though, that Moloney is very with-it for a seventy year old bagpipe player. ADHD is the disorder of the day, and it seems that audiences today want the over-stimulation and the channel-surfer’s pacing that he gives to a concert. If he were to play to the traditionalists, I imagine he’d never have left Dublin. And if he’d never left Dublin, the tradition probably wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

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