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Chieftains: The Essential Chieftains

The Chieftains
The Essential Chieftains

It seems as though the Chieftains have always been with us, and because this Irish group first began recording together in 1963, their career span amounts to a full lifetime — and then some — for many. This double-disc collection shows two distinct sides of the act: The first CD is mainly comprised of unaccompanied material, populated by traditional jigs and reels, as well as noteworthy soundtrack works, such as “The Women of Ireland (The Love Theme from Barry Lyndon)”. The second part reveals the influence the Chieftains have had on the wider music community, featuring the act’s multiple musical collaborations over the years.

Such a broad generalization is not to suggest that disc one is dull and predictable, however. The track “Full of Joy”, for instance, features accompaniment by Chinese musicians playing Chinese instruments and is taken from The Chieftains in China album. But for the most part, this first set is music geared toward those looking for distinctly Irish sounds. “Carolan’s Concerto”, which was recorded live at Barbicon Hall, London, is a traditional instrumental, whereas “The Green Fields of America” is another traditional work, but is driven by Kevin Conneff’s sad vocal.

If your favorite musicians act like mad scientists who treat each and every recording like it was an open-ended lab experiment, then the second CD here will provide plenty of listening fun for you. These Chieftains often throw the rules out the window. I mean, where do we start?

Well, there’s always been a strong connection between Irish music and American country music, and that link is explored at length here. Buddy & Julie Miller, who are not country icons (yet), join the boys for “Country Blues”. Nanci Griffith sadly emotes on “Red Is the Rose”, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helps them with “The Squid Jiggin’ Ground”, Emmylou Harris (who is always welcome on any album, country or otherwise) can be heard on “Lambs in the Greenfields”, Alison Krauss’s pure singing glides along with “Molly Bán (Bawn)”, and Ricky Skaggs is the guest vocalist for “Cotton-Eyed Joe”. These artists bring out the Nashville in the Chieftains, just as the Chieftains conjure up the Irish out of these Nashvillians. The inspiration obviously goes both ways.

In a few places, the Chieftains collaborate with — not surprisingly — fellow Irishmen and Irishwomen. Van Morrison was simply made to sing “Shenandoah”, and he invests his mighty powerful lungs into this familiar lament. Sinead O’Connor is not nearly the traditional performer Morrison is, but her singing on “The Foggy Dew” is also particularly memorable.

This set also includes a few star-studded appearances by a number of iconic characters. Sting lends his voice to “Mo Ghile Mear”, Elvis Costello (along with ANUNA) performs “Long Journey Home”, and Marianne Faithfull applies what little is left of her voice to “Love Is Teasin'”.

The best selections on this last disc are associated with a couple of unlikely performers, and one unlikely song. Linda Rondstadt and Los Lobos throw a little Hispanic coloring into the Chieftains’ Irish stew for the unusually beautiful “Guadalupe”. Similarly, Jackson Browne’s confrontational “The Rebel Jesus” also makes for a fine fit here.

Of course, none of these combinations would add up to jack if it were not for the instrumental prowess of the Chieftains. Paddy Moloney is the primary arranger for this act’s recordings, as well as a skilled uilleann pipes and tin whistle player; Derek Bell’s harp and harpsichord parts are also satisfying constants, and this group just plain performs together like a well-oiled machine.

This overview covers forty music-filled years, between 1963 and 2003, and it’s hard to find too many other acts that have been this consistently creative for four long decades. It probably would have been easier if the Chieftains had just stuck to playing Irish drinking songs and performing at touring Irish fairs. But these are restlessly searching players, God bless ’em, with an unquenchable need to explore sound! They obviously love good country and bluegrass just as much as homegrown ethnic styles. And after mixing it up with Chinese music, who knows what they’ll come up with next?

RATING 8 / 10