Posts Tagged ‘the chieftains’

The Chieftains: a beginner’s guide

Posted on March 4th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

The Chieftains

The Chieftains (photo Barry McCall)

Nigel Williamson looks back at the enduring global popularity of the Irish musical ambassadors

Paddy Moloney once joked that there are only two kinds of musician in the world – the Irish and those who wish that they were. Although it was said with a mischievous twinkle, the list of those who have worked with The Chieftains suggests he may have had a point.

The Rolling Stones, Roger Daltrey, Ry Cooder, Elvis Costello and Sting have all queued to record with Ireland’s best-loved traditional group. So, too, have Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Natalie Merchant, Art Garfunkel, Ziggy Marley, Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck, Pavarotti, Earl Scruggs and a host of others, not to mention a bunch of younger artists not even born when The Chieftains started playing together, including Bon Iver, Paolo Nutini and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rock stars, pop singers, country artists, reggae musicians and operatic titans – who in their right mind would turn down the chance to work with the Chieftains? Even NASA astronaut Cady Coleman recorded an extra-terrestrial collaboration with them, playing the flute aboard the International Space Station as it orbited the earth.

To Moloney, who founded the group in Dublin in 1962 and has led it ever since, all of the world’s musicians are honorary Irishmen. Ry Cooder tells a story of working with the uilleann piper in Havana: “Every Cuban song we played him, he said it reminded him of an Irish tune. I swear Paddy thinks all the music in the world originally came from Ireland.” True to form, when The Chieftains toured with a group of Mongolian throat singers, Moloney was convinced that he had detected “the rhythms of an Irish jig” in their music.

When the Chieftains formed, playing traditional Irish instrumental music was not a living but a recreation, pursued in pub sessions in return for a few free pints. It was 13 years and four albums into their career before they turned professional – and in the end it took a wager to persuade them. When promoter Jo Lustig booked them to play London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1975, Moloney told him he was mad to hire such a large venue but that if he could sell it out, they would give up their day jobs. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house.

The Chieftains in Finland in 1974 (photo Moloney Archives)

The Chieftains in Finland in 1974 (photo Moloney Archives)

By the end of 1975 The Chieftains had signed to Island Records, recorded the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon and were voted group of the year in the annual Melody Maker poll, improbably beating The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Turning professional brought a settled line-up that included founder members Moloney, fiddler Martin Fay and tin whistler Sean Potts, augmented by harpist Derek Bell, who joined in 1975, bodhrán player Kevin Conneff who replaced Peadar Mercier a year later, and finally flautist Matt Molloy, who took over from Michael Tubridy in 1979. The line-up remained unchanged until Bell’s death in 2002 and has continued to this day without him.

The group’s first five albums were entirely instrumental but 1976’s The Chieftains 6: Bonaparte’s Retreat began the practice of using guest vocalists, in this case Dolores Keane of traditional Irish band De Dannan, while Conneff stepped up to the plate as the group’s in-house singer.

By the 80s The Chieftains had embarked on a series of albums that sought to fuse traditional Irish music with a range of other genres. Year of the French (1983) teamed them with a symphony orchestra. Celtic Wedding (1987) was an exploration of traditional Breton music. The following year came the hit album Irish Heartbeat with Van Morrison.

High-profile gigs playing on the Great Wall of China, performing at the US Capitol Building and entertaining the Pope led to the Irish government in 1989 making them honorific ‘musical ambassadors,’ a title that came with the issue of leather diplomatic cases with their status proudly embossed in gold.

The 1990s brought a Christmas album featuring Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones and Elvis Costello, a Nashville-recorded country album, a live record with Roger Daltrey and Nanci Griffith and a Celtic rock album, which featured The Rolling Stones. Another album explored the folk music of Galicia and 1999’s Tears of Stone featured a different female vocalist on every track.

But other members of the group were growing increasingly concerned that The Chieftains were straying too far from their roots. “It’s all been great, but I’ve told Paddy we really need to make a proper traditional Irish album again,” Molloy told this writer in 1999. He got his way with 2000’s Water from the Well, but it was soon followed by two further Nashville-recorded albums featuring a plethora of top American country stars.

In recent years, the flood of recordings has slowed to a trickle; but the group marked its 50th anniversary with 2012’s Voice of Ages, which teamed the veterans with a cleverly chosen raft of young indie acts, and they remain one of the world’s great live attractions.

“Somebody once asked my wife ‘is he ever going to retire?’ and she said, ‘He’s in rehearsal for it,’” says Moloney. “That was ten years ago”


The-Chieftains---The-Chieftains-4-CoverThe Chieftains 4 (Claddagh, 1973)

The finest of their early albums includes a recording of Seán Ó Riada’s composition ‘Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland)’, which brought them to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who used it in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon.







The-Chieftains---The-Long-Black-Veil-CoverThe Long Black Veil (BMG, 1995)

On this album they roared down the ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ with The Rolling Stones, invited Mick Jagger to sing on the title-track, gave cameo roles to Sting, Sinéad O’Connor and Van Morrison and began a productive partnership with Ry Cooder.






The-Chieftains---Santiago-CoverSantiago (BMG, 1996)

Moloney called Galicia “the world’s most undiscovered Celtic country.” In addition to examining its heritage with Galician musicians Carlos Núñez and Kepa Junkera, he also rounded up Los Lobos, Ry Cooder and Linda Ronstadt to explore the influence of Galician migrants on Latin American music.





The-Chieftains---San-Patricio-CoverSan Patricio (Decca, 2010)

The group’s third album to feature Cooder told the story of a battalion of Irish volunteers who deserted the US army in 1846 to fight for the other side in the Mexican-American war. Lila Downs and a vast cast of Mexican musicians help out, and Liam Neeson adds the narrative. Reviewed in #67.





The-Chieftains-Voice-of-AgesCDVoice of Ages (Concord, 2012)

Released to commemorate the group’s 50th anniversary, this clearly demonstrates their incredible pulling power, as it features an array of special guests from Paolo Nutini, Imelda May and Bon Iver to the Punch Brothers. A Top of the World review in #84.







The-Gloaming-CoverThe Gloaming (Real World, 2014)

This is traditional Irish acoustic music at its best with a fresh perspective from a Celtic ‘supergroup’ featuring fiddle player Martin Hayes, guitarist Dennis Cahill and sean nós and ex-Afro Celt Sound System singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. A Top of the World in #98.






This article originally appeared in Songlines #115. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit:

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Top of the World Review: The Chieftains – Voice of Ages

Posted on April 29th, 2012 in Recent posts, Reviews by .

Words by Nigel Williamson

Today’s indie-folk queue up to jam with Paddy and co

Nobody can say no to Paddy Moloney. From Mick Jagger to Ry Cooder, the list of unlikely collaborators corralled by the veteran leader of the Chieftains is almost endless. The Chieftains’ follow-up to 2010’s Irish-Mexican fusion with Ry Cooder finds them introducing another 14 diverse collaborators to the joys of a proper, old-fashioned pipes, whistle, fiddle, flute and bodhrán session. The strong links between Irish folk and the styles of rural Americana is mined profitably on ‘Pretty Little Girl’, featuring the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and on tracks with the Pistol Annies, the Civil Wars and Punch Brothers. 

Past collaborations with the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Natalie Merchant have shown how well the Chieftains brand of Irish folk works with a female lead and Imelda May, the Secret Sisters and Lisa Hannigan keep up the tradition here. The latter in particular contributes to one of the most stunning tracks the Chieftains have ever recorded on ‘My Lagan Love’, which also features some haunting playing from Moloney on tin whistle and flautist Matt Molloy. The indie rock collaborators play their part, too, with Bon Iver singing affectingly on ‘Down in the Willow Garden’ and the Decemberists delivering a spirited version of Dylan’s ‘When the Ship Comes In’. There’s even a collaboration with NASA astronaut Cady Coleman recorded in space. I’m not sure the Chieftains were up there in orbit with her; but with Paddy Moloney, you never know.


Listen to a choice track from Voice of Ages on the Top of the World CD included with the current issue (#84 June 2012). 

Subscribe now and receive this album for free (new subscribers only). To order, please click here

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Acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale playlist and the 10 best new releases in the June issue of Songlines (#84)

Posted on April 26th, 2012 in News, Recent posts by .

The June 2012 issue of Songlines – on sale April 27 – features a free covermount CD packed full of the best new sounds from around the world, plus 5 tracks selected by acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale.

The issue also features the second free CD Back2Black Festival Sampler.

The Top of the World CD includes tracks from Irish folk legends The Chieftains; Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca; Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars; Solomon Islands pan-pipers Narasirato; Cajun supergroup The Band Courtbouillon; and the Angolan street sound of Batida, among others.

Pick up your copy here on the website, at selected WHSmith’s and at all good record retailers. Feast your ears on these all-new tracks:

* Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars ‘Gbara Case’ on Cumbancha
* Roberto Fonseca ‘Quien Soy Yo’ on Jazz Village
* The Chieftains ‘The Frost is All Over’ on Concord
* Diabel Cissokho ‘Karambaya’ on World Village
* Soumik Datta & Bernhard Schimpelsberger ‘Orion’ on Baithak Records
* Cathy Jordan ‘The Bold Fenian Men’ on Blix Street Records
* The Band Courtbouillon feat. Wayne Toups, Steve Riley & Wilson Savoy ‘The Bosco Blues’ on Valcour Records
* Batida ‘Alegria’ on Soundway Records
* Dulsori ‘The Beat’ on ARC Music
* Narasirato ‘Mane Paina’ on Smash

Plus Simon Russell Beale’s playlist:

* Mzetamze ‘Suliko’ on Wergo
* Kapela Eugeniusz Wilczek Band ‘Nuty Sabalowe, Pre Zielone Jare Zytko, Sabalowe’ on Polskie Radio
* Anatoli Kuular ‘Borbangnadyr with Stream Water’ on Smithsonian Folkways
* Tenores di Bitti ‘Anghelos Cantade’ on Real World
* Philip Koutev National Folk Ensemble ‘Kaji, Kaji, Angjo’ on JVC/Victor Entertainment

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Issue #84 (June 2012) is on sale in the UK from April 27

Posted on April 25th, 2012 in News, Recent posts by .

The new June 2012 issue of Songlines is on sale in the UK from April 27 and includes our regular Top of the World CD with ten tracks from the finest new releases from around the planet, plus a second free CD Back2Black Festival Sampler.

The Top of the World CD also includes five tracks selected by acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale.


The Top of the World CD includes tracks from Irish folk legends The Chieftains; Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca; Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars; Solomon Islands pan-pipers Narasirato; Cajun supergroup The Band Courtbouillon; and the Angolan street sound of Batida, among others.



The main editorial features include:

Songlines Music Awards 2012 – We are delighted to announce the winners of the fourth annual awards, celebrating the best global musicians.
• R.U.T.A. – The Polish punk band whose sound is firmly rooted in revolutionary music.
• Spiro – Finely-constructed modernist folk from the Bristolian band.
• El Sistema – We journey to Venezuela to explore the success of the pioneering music programme that is transforming lives.
• The World’s Best Festivals 2012 – The Songlines round-up of the top places to be in the UK and worldwide.

• Sounding Out Paris – all the best places to see and hear music in the French capital.
• Beginner’s Guide to Amadou & Mariam.
• Postcard from Korea.
• Backpage from Myanmar.
• My World – acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale.
• Grooves – producer extraordinaire Simon Emmerson, bluegrass star Sarah Jarosz and Top of the World Malian kora player Diabel Cissokho.
• News, including this summer’s BT River of Music, news of this summer’s Songlines Encounters Festival and Cerys Matthews’ latest musical finds.
• Reviews of the latest CD, DVD and World Cinema releases.

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