In the late 1950s, a trio of Irish brothers living in and around New York’s Greenwich Village threw various band names about. Paddy, Tommy, and Liam Clancy finally decided that the surname was the best way to go and the rest is history. But one of the final choices was the Chieftains, which they decided wasn’t suitable. While the Clancy Brothers certainly wouldn’t have embarrassed themselves using such a moniker, it would seem almost impossible to believe that Paddy Moloney wasn’t born to be a Chieftain. As leader of the traditional Irish and Celtic music group, Moloney and his band of merry men has performed with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Natalie MacMaster over almost 40 years. But it didn’t come without some personnel changes. In 1975, Michael Turbidy and Sean Potts amicably exited the band, making way for the new members. The last album featuring all original members occurred with The Chieftains 8. And while it isn’t “the” Chieftains album, the musicianship and lyrics show that the love of music and of each other definitely wasn’t in vain.
The album’s collection of jigs, reels and occasional laments aren’t lost on the listener, but it’s the toe-tapping jigs which seem to get the listener’s ear and foot immediately. The opening track, “The Session” is a series of three traditional songs, “Elizabeth Kelly’s Delight”, “Fraher’s Jig”, and “Dinny Delaney’s”. Elegantly explained in the extensive and informative liner notes, the song melds different tempos such as 9/8 and 12/8 without losing a step along the way. Also of note is how each member’s instrument is introduced one by one, adding to the song’s overall luster. The lovely lament, “Doctor John Hart”, follows. The song is noted not just for its harp and soft ballad-like touches, but also for the brief upbeat jig features midway through the song.
One of the early highlights has to be the ideal performance by fiddler Sean Keane and his arrangement of “Sean Sa Cheo”. Keane starts off with an eclectic arrangement that resembles more of a Latin or Flamenco feeling but stays true to the Irish format. But by the time Keane is warmed up, both Paddy Moloney and Sean Potts contribute to the song for a brief but magnificent conclusion that demonstrates the sum is far greater than its parts. All of the songs have a deeper musical and cultural history to them, but David McGee states in the liner notes what should be obvious to all. “You don’t have to be a musicologist to appreciate what’s happening here; all you need is a heart to understand the passion these men feel for their native land and the bond that binds them together.” Nowhere is this found more than on “An tSean Bhean Bhoct/The Fairies Hornpipe”. Arranged by Moloney, this song has a similar blueprint to “Doctor John Hart” but there seems to be a bit more intensity in the playing.
Closing the album’s first half (or side one for those still living with vinyl) is the pretty “Sea Image”. While beginning at a slow and dirge-like pace, the subtle use of Derek Bell’s harp propels the song. The bodhran moves in and out as does the tin whistle, but it’s the harp that acts as the song’s anchor throughout the joyous twists and turns. “If I Had Maggie in the Woods” is perhaps the fastest song here, not a surprise given the title and its overtones and the grin-inducing lyrical couplet. It’s also surprising because it’s the first trace of any hoots or hollers heard on the album. If there’s one track that takes a bit longer to gel than one would wish for, it has to be “The Dogs Among the Bushes”. Being only a touch over two minutes, it isn’t until near the song’s conclusion that the bodhran and tin whistle hit their strides. Fortunately, it’s the only possible miscue of the almost dozen tracks.
“Miss Hamilton” is perhaps the closest Chieftains’ equivalent to the traditional wedding march. A mix of bells, harps and traditional instruments create a lush sonic picture. “The Job of Journeywork” is a great curve that leads the listener down a melancholy road only to slowly build tension and evolve into a mid-tempo relaxing toe-tapper. The album finishes in grand style with “The Wind that Shakes the Barley/The Reel with The Beryle”. The former portion is similar to “Drowsy Maggie” on Chieftains 4 while the latter part is actually ideal for stepdancers. But Kevin Conneff uses two bodhrans to sound as if it’s the flights of Irish dancing fancy.
The album was a watershed moment for the band and a turning point. No longer would the band be the same, but Moloney knew the future was there for his taking. And with the help of his mates, the Chieftains took and are thankfully still taking.
// Notes from the Road
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