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The Chieftains

During a career that lasted nearly six decades, the Chieftains delivered Irish traditional music to all corners of the globe, forging a unique path to success that was inclusive and highly collaborative. When they formed in the early-'60s, few outside of Ireland were familiar with the country's lively and nuanced instrumental folk tunes played on instruments like the uilleann pipes, tin whistle, fiddle, and bodhran. The Chieftains changed that, bringing an unfussy virtuosity to these otherworldly songs that captivated listeners, first in England, then in the U.S. where they became a phenomenon in the mid-'70s. Part of their appeal was their versatility and willingness to experiment with the parameters of traditional music. They won an Academy Award for their soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon, then proceeded to deliver a new album every year for the remainder of the decade, all while touring widely and constantly. In the '80s and '90s, the Chieftains earned their reputation as cultural ambassadors, working with a vast and diverse array of musicians on projects that fused Irish music with European, North American, and even Chinese folk traditions. What's more, they successfully merged themselves with the rock, country, and classical communities, pairing up with a litany of stars that ranged from Roger Daltrey and Sting to Ziggy Marley, Rosanne Cash, and John Williams. Although their output slowed in the 21st century, the Chieftains remained a consistent and popular live act right up through their Irish Goodbye farewell tour in 2019. With several of their core members either retired or deceased, the group effectively disbanded following the 2021 death of leader and founding member Paddy Moloney. Moloney (uilleann pipes, tin whistle) formed the Chieftains in Dublin in 1962 with Seán Potts (tin whistle), and Michael Tubridy (tin whistle, Irish flute, concertina). Both Moloney and Potts were members of Ceoltóirí Chualann, a pioneering ensemble whose passion for traditional music helped inspire the Irish folk revival. Spearheaded by a County Cork composer named Sean Ó Riada, Ceoltóirí Chualann specialized in traditional reels, jigs, and dances, operating as a sort of Irish folk orchestra, a rarity at that time. When Moloney and Potts left to form the Chieftains, their aim was to carry this work several steps further. The original trio of Moloney, Potts, and Tubridy added Martin Fay (fiddle) and David Fallon (bodhran) to complete the band's initial lineup, taking their name from John Montague's book Death of a Chieftain. Their self-titled 1964 debut came out on the Claddagh label, establishing the sparse, but lively instrumental sound that came to define their early work. They were a success virtually from the beginning, their music weaving a spell around audiences in Ireland and later in England, where they quickly became popular as both a performing and recording act. Despite this, the Chieftains remained a semi-professional, part-time ensemble until the early-'70s, by which point they had recorded three more albums for Claddagh, simply titled Chieftains 2, 3, and 4. Released in 1973, Chieftains 4 marked the first appearance of Derek Bell, a classically trained musician whose elegant harp work became a central element of their sound going forward. Around this time the Chieftains became a full-time entity and began building an audience in the U.S. where a new, younger generation of Irish-American listeners had begun to discover their work. Their big breakthrough in America, however, occurred when they provided the music for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 movie Barry Lyndon. The Chieftains' soundtrack won an Academy Award for Best Original Score and the song "Women of Ireland" became a surprise radio hit. Suddenly, there was a strong demand for them in America and they responded with a U.S. tour and numerous television performances. By this time, Island Records began handling their output and also acquired the rights to re-released their first four albums in America and England. After the release of 1975's Chieftains 5, the group became more prolific, engaging their newfound audience with a new album every year. Bonaparte's Retreat (1976) introduced another key member in bodhran player Kevin Conneff and was also their first record to feature vocals, courtesy of guest singer Dolores Keane. The Chieftains Live! appeared in 1977 and following 1978's Chieftains 8, both Potts and Tubridy left the band. Former Planxty and Bothy Band member Matt Molly joined on flute for Chieftains 9 (1979), cementing the core lineup that would carry the Chieftains into the '80s and beyond. By 1980, they were more or less considered the global ambassadors of Irish music, a role they would expand on future releases as they started to collaborate outside their genre and embrace cultures other than their own. 1981's Chieftains 10 (their last release to use the numbering system) included nods to Brittany and even Texas; when it was reissued by the Shanachie label, it received the subtitle Cotton-Eyed Joe after the popular American fiddle tune. 1985's The Chieftains in China followed a successful tour of China where they became the first western group to play a concert on the Great Wall of China. They next headed to Brittany where they recorded 1987's Celtic Wedding with several prominent traditional Breton players. They worked with renowned classical flutist James Galway on 1987's In Ireland, while 1988's Irish Heartbeat with Van Morrison became one of their most popular and acclaimed releases to date, making the U.K. Top 20. This trend of collaborating with musicians of all genres continued to an even greater degree in the '90s, beginning with the Christmas-themed set, The Bells of Dublin. In addition to rock musicians like Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, and Ricki Lee Jones, it featured Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, and choral work from the Renaissance Singers. It was followed by the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass and country-themed Another Country with prominent American stars like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Ricky Skaggs. Roger Daltrey and Nanci Griffith joined them for the 1992 live set An Irish Evening and later that year they collaborated with composer John Williams on the soundtrack to the Irish-themed epic Far and Away. By the late-'90s, appearing on a Chieftains album almost became a right of passage for established musicians. Among the band's many admirers who joined them in the studio or on stage were Sting, the Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler, Marianne Faithful, Sinead O'Connor, Tom Jones, and Ry Cooder. The band also kept up with their globally-themed records, working with Spanish musicians on 1996's Galacian-inspired Santiago and with Canadian artists on 1998's Fire in the Kitchen. They also remained a reliably popular live act, touring the world with regularity. In 2002, the Chieftains celebrated their 40th anniversary with an anthology release, Wide World Over, then collaborated with country musicians like Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and Del McCoury on Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions. In October of the following year, just one month after the release of the sequel album Further Down the Old Plank Road, longtime harpist Derek Bell passed away while on tour in Phoenix, Arizona. His bandmates later held a memorial concert for him which was released in 2005 as Live From Dublin: A Tribute to Derek Bell. While they continued to tour, the Chieftains didn't record again for a number of years. Moloney had long been obsessed with the historical account of the San Patricios, a band of immigrant Irish soldiers who deserted the American Army during the Mexican-American War in 1846 to fight for the other side, against the Manifest Destiny ideology of American president James Polk. The Chieftains and co-producer Ry Cooder decided to try to tell it musically and enlisted a host of Mexican musicians in the process. The album San Patricio created a Mexican-Irish melodic mélange and was issued to widespread acclaim in 2010. Two years later, in 2012, the Chieftains celebrated their 50th anniversary. Every living member of the band participated in a reunion of original members. In addition, they enlisted a number of vocal talents from the indie rock and Americana world, including the Decemberists, Lisa Hannigan, Paolo Nutini, the Civil Wars, Bon Iver, and Imelda May. Co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Moloney, Voice of Ages was issued in February of 2012. In 2019, after nearly six decades together, the Chieftains launched a series of farewell tours which they called the Irish Goodbye Tour. These shows lasted until March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the final leg. Founder and bandleader Paddy Moloney died on October 11, 2021 after which the group closed the door on future performances. The remaining members briefly reunited to play one last show in April of 2023 when U.S. President Joe Biden visited Ireland to view his ancestral home village.
© Bruce Eder & Timothy Monger /TiVo
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