Cultural Diplomacy With The Chieftans

The Irish band The Chieftans performed a rollicking concert in in San Francisco last night. As befits a group that’s been around since 1962 and has over the decades performed all over the world, collaborated with all kinds of artists from many different musical traditions, put out close to 40 albums and earned six Grammy Awards, The Chieftans have pretty much become cultural diplomats.

At Davies Symphony Hall, three of the main band members — Paddy Moloney (uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, bodhrán), Matt Molloy (flute, tin whistle), Kevin Conneff (bodhrán, vocals) — surrounded themselves with a deluge of guest artists. (The fourth main Chieftan, fiddler Sean Keane was unable join with the group on its current tour dates.) The guest artists on stage last night included everything from a Gaelic singer from an island off the coast of Scotland, to two different Irish dance troupes to the entire Bushmills pipe and drum band that came on stage and played a number dressed in kilts.

Similarly diverse was the program. Some of the music was traditional Irish, but a great deal borrowed from and merged with other traditions. There were bluegrass songs (helmed by a couple of Nashville musicians who played with The Chieftans throughout their set) and numbers from Mexico and everything in between.

The Chieftans have done a great deal of worthy work by bringing people together from different traditions to play together. The wide variety of timbres and moods made for an eclectic and constantly engaging evening.

But I wonder how often these days the original band members get together just between themselves to jam? The enormous, spectacular Chieftans roadshow is a lot of fun. And if you’re going to play symphony halls and the like, you might as well make use of the space and wheel on a battalion of pipers, dancers and, what the heck, mariachi bands if you please. But I think I’d like to hear the band doing their thing in the back of a Dublin pub someday, just quietly playing some old Irish songs like they did back in the 1960s.

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