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World Music Features

The Chieftains

By Tad Hendrickson
Published March 13, 2007

In 2007, the Chieftains will celebrate 45 years together, with founder Paddy Moloney still at the helm. Many talented players have come and gone, but this Irish juggernaut continues to tour far and wide.
IRELAND

There are the Chieftains, and there’s everyone else. In 2007, the band will celebrate 45 years together, with founder Paddy Moloney still at the helm. Many talented players have come and gone, but this Irish juggernaut continues to tour far and wide. The band is fond of quoting the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” during its shows, and they really are the Rolling Stones of the global folk music scene. No other band can sell out halls in Minneapolis or Miami year in and year out; they’ve played Carnegie Hall an amazing 22 times over the years. There have been gigs played on the Great Wall of China, in the Hollywood Bowl and at the Sydney Opera House, but the one that still means the most to Moloney is a St. Patrick’s Day concert audaciously booked into London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“That came in 1975, we were semi-professional up till that,” Moloney recalls during a few stolen moments amidst a typically hectic schedule. “We sold out the Albert Hall with three weeks notice. To me, that was it. Seán Potts and myself, we had tears in our eyes that night.”

It took several minutes of conversation and some prodding on my part before Moloney recalled that turning point for the band. A man who seems to be in perpetual motion when not sitting playing his uilleann pipes, Moloney wants to talk about Japanese singer Chistow, who he is to play with in the studio on the day of this interview.

“We’re in the studio for the next four days, recording a song which is half Irish, half English, believe it or not, in the Irish language, and one of her own songs—she’s from one of the islands off of Okinawa. I’m also going to ask, once I have it recorded and done, Ry Cooder to throw a few little shapes on it as well.”

Throughout the conversation, Moloney talks of collaborations and future plans with enthusiasm, citing an upcoming tour of Argentina as a real highlight; nonetheless, as the story above proves, he recalls the past with wonder and pride. Fleeting for all of us, the present is simply a bridge to the next jam session, gig or event on the Moloney agenda.

“Here we are 45 years now, and should be slowing down an awful lot, but you know we’ve just done a few concerts and television, like we’re on local television here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And doing big symphony orchestra stuff and with big choirs for Christmas, from [1991’s] The Bells Of Dublin, you know, items from our Christmas albums. And so, there’s a lot of little shows happening all the time. And of course we’re getting ready for our tour, which will happen the 5th of January we’re playing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.”

It’s a far cry from the humble beginnings of the band. Taking its name from John Montague’s book Death Of A Chieftain, the idea of the band—a traditional folk ensemble that would have broad appeal—was hatched in 1962 at Claddagh Records founder Garech Browne’s Dublin flat. Moloney was a promising young piper who had studied under Leo Rowsome and was gaining a name for himself in Dublin. At the time, he was often playing with future Chieftain Seán Potts and future Dubliner Barney McKenna. Moloney also was a founding member of Cealtóirí Chualann, which had composer and arranger Seán Ó Rioda as a guiding light—Ó Rioda is generally regarded as the musician who founded the modern Irish folk music movement.

The traditional music scene was just starting to take off in the late ’50s and early ’60s after some dark years. “[It wasn’t] like what it is now,” Moloney points out. “You hear and see and feel tremendous respect. And even in the ’50s, to be walking around with a fiddle under your arm, or pipes, you’d get a bit of a slagging from your schoolmates. You know: ‘Oh, he plays that biddle d ding music.’ But it’s a different story now, let me tell you.”

A serious musician and an ambitious young man, Moloney dreamt of taking the band into concerts halls instead of the l