While U2 were turning Ireland’s beauty and strife into three-chord testaments, while the Pogues were busy being Ireland’s answer to the Replacements, and while Van Morrison was slipping in and out of his role as soul prophet, the Chieftains were in the background quietly following their own path. While countless Irish bands have made their mark on modern music, the Chieftains have stayed true to the ideals of traditional Irish folk music. That’s not to say that they’re a one-trick pony. The Chieftains have played everywhere from Nashville to Beijing, and with everyone from Ricky Skaggs to the Rolling Stones to traditional Chinese ensembles. However, in the midst of their most far-flung travels, they’ve kept one foot firmly in Irish soil.
The Chieftains 7 and 9 mark a period during which the group was first making a splash in the United States. Already 14 years old when 7 was released (founder Paddy Maloney had formed the band as a one-off experiment while a member of Ceoltoiri Cualann in 1963), the Chieftains were already a honed, veteran band consisting of some of Ireland’s best musicians by the time America discovered them. Expanding on Ceoltoiri Cualann’s template of tradition and virtuosity, the Chieftains were one of the few groups at the time playing what now seems commonplace: stripped-down, versatile, traditional Irish music.
On these two albums, there’s little to indicate the wanderlust and cross-pollination that would typify the Chieftains in later years, but 7 immediately lays their strengths out for all to see. “Away We Go Again” briskly kicks things off, consisting of six separate pieces that Moloney weaves into a whole. Likewise with “Dochas (Hope)”, which is stitched together from two different airs. Throughout 7, you find Moloney and his bandmates taking multiple types of traditional Irish music (reels, jigs, airs, etc.) and working them together into cohesive pieces. The Chieftains, primarily an instrumental group, also make interesting compromises when faced with a part that’s traditionally sung. Different instruments, from tin whistle to fiddle, assume the vocal parts in the Chieftains’ versions (although bodhran player Keven Conneff takes the occasional vocal turn).
That’s all well and good for academic appreciation, but how does the music sound? Well, it’s top notch. Even though archival pictures reveal them to have dressed like accountants most of their long lives, each member is a consummate master of his instruments. What’s more, their keen sense of traditional material and presentation sounds remarkably fresh even today. Amidst the electrified folk of ‘60s acts like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, the Chieftains surely sounded charmingly anachronistic. In this day and age of sweeping, synth-fed New Age Celtic music, they sound like an even more vital link to the past. Tunes like “O’Sullivan’s March” and “Friel’s Kitchen” display a modern, lively sense of arrangement, but are still firmly rooted traditional tunes. By the time of Chieftains 7, the group was already established, much like Michael Doucet’s Beausoleil is regarded in Cajun circles, as pre-eminent practitioners and archivists. If there’s any criticism of 7, it’s that perhaps the archival feel is a little too prevalent in spots. For all the band’s compositional genius, things feel a bit academic sometimes.
1980’s The Chieftains 9: Boil the Breakfast Early comes on the heels of a major shake-up in the band’s roster. Founding members Sean Potts and Martin Tubridy are gone, replaced by Matt Malloy on tin whistle and flute. The band’s approach is the same, with their music no less steeped in Irish history and just as expertly played, but Malloy’s presence lends an intangible muscle to the Chieftains. Boil the Breakfast Early just sounds livelier than 7, be it through Malloy’s playing style or the addition of new blood to a veteran band. Especially thrilling is the interplay between Malloy and fiddler Sean Keane throughout the album, a strength that’s evident from the title track and a foot stomper like “Up Against the Buachalawns”, both of which find the two complementing each other like a pair of old pub mates. To many ears, this album marks the beginning of the Chieftains as we now know them: confident, energetic, and exploring.
With the band firing on all cylinders, it would be just a few short years before Moloney would try his hand at film scoring with The Year of the French; five years after that, The Chieftains in China would take world music to seemingly unnatural but highly successful extremes. Unlike 1976’s unsuccessful Bonaparte’s Retreat (which merely tried to make the band’s music sound more modern and progressive), later Chieftains excursions would place a premium on synthesis. Collaborations with high-profile pop artists like the Rolling Stones, Sinead O’Connor, and Sting broadened their audience considerably in the ‘90s, but it was always on the Chieftain’s own terms. As good as The Chieftains 7 and 9 are, there was no way of knowing what all-encompassing ambassadors the group would become. Still, for traditional Irish music played with heart and virtuosity, you can’t do much better than these two albums.