The Chieftains - Live at Montreux 1997

[25 October 2009]

By Christel Loar

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

The Chieftains’ appearance at Switzerland’s legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997 found the group at an inarguable peak in its then 35 year career. Originally started in 1962 by Paddy Maloney, The Chieftains have since achieved worldwide acclaim, including earning several Grammy awards. The 1997 lineup featured in this fabulous performance was Moloney on Uilleann pipes, tin whistle and vocals, Matt Molloy on flute, Kevin Conneff on Bodhrán and vocals, Derek “Ding Dong” Bell on harp and piano, and Martin Fay and Sean Keane on fiddles.

The first thing you may notice when viewing The Chieftains - Live at Montreux 1997 is how energetic the crowd is. Even before The Chieftains emerge from behind a screen at the back of the stage, the audience is ramped up, and the enthusiasm doesn’t subside once during the entire 84 minute show. Even when it’s momentarily channeled into a respectful appreciation of the quieter numbers, it’s still present and palpable. And obviously, The Chieftains are aware of it and giving back as good, or better, than they’re given. Maloney and Conneff, especially, are engaging and clearly connecting with the crowd. It’s this easy give and take of energy that makes this DVD so much fun to watch.

And then, there’s the music. The Chieftains are, of course, primarily a traditional Irish instrumental group. But they’ve never been averse to incorporating elements of other styles and musical traditions from around the world into their collective sound. This show emphasizes tunes from 1995’s The Long Black Veil, a pop-leaning, collaborations-and-duets record featuring the likes of Van Morrison, Sting, Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.  Maloney makes note that none of those people could be present, but it doesn’t matter, because even if these stars were available, The Chieftains would still own the stage, as they do so effortlessly on the gorgeous “Album Medley” that begins with Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” moving into the haunting “Mo Ghile Mear”  before segueing into “The Rocky Road To Dublin” via a humorous nod to the Stones and “Satisfaction”, and finally culminating in another lively “Reels And Dance”.

The style-blending world travels continue as the group pulls from the 1997 Grammy-winning Santiago. Introducing guest Bea Riobo on the Galician bagpipes(also known as the gaita), the band launches into “Galician Overture”, which whips the audience into a frenzy in preparation for the magnificent “Dueling Chanters”, a delightful piece that highlights the interaction between Moloney’s Uilleann pipes and Riobo’s bagpipes. Later in the set, we’re treated to some stunning flamenco guitar guest Tom O’ Farrell and Riobo returns sing “Guadalupe,” which combines Mexican and Galician influences.

Though masters at melding world flavors and musical influences, what The Chieftains do best is present Irish music culture. And they know how to turn a show into a party without an excess of flash.  Not only do they have a pair of phenomenal step dancers onstage for the reels (which the crowd loves), but they’ve also perfected the art of letting each member take his turn in the spotlight (which the crowd adores). Notable are Matt Molloy’s beautiful and mesmerizing medley “A Fig for a Kiss / Mulhares Reel / Gravel Walks” and Bell’s show-stealing ragtime during the individual solo spots of the encore’s classic “Did You Ever Go A Courtin’ Uncle Joe”. The cheering and clapping from the audience by this point is at a fever pitch, and they just don’t let up. Rather than being distracting, however, this adds to the charm and excitement of watching the DVD. It’s definitely one of those “next best thing to actually being there” things. The stellar sound and crisp, clear close-ups add to that feeling of witnessing the show firsthand, and that, along with the wonderful liner notes, completely offsets any need for extra features.

The Cheiftains end the night with another rousing medley, “Give Me Your Hand / The Trip to Durrow / Flogging Reel”, and long after each member has left the stage, the crowd continues to clap and stomp and shout well into the credits, and perhaps beyond, as it fades to black. Just as a performance by The Chieftains is a great illustration of what a collaborative experience a concert can be, The Chieftains - Live at Montreux 1997 is an exceptional example of what a live concert DVD should be.

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