December 01, 1987

Celt Following

Filed under: Archive,Music

Celt Following
The Chieftains
Festival Theatre

Even when they’re just tuning their instruments the Chieftains sound better than most bands. Their mellifluous harmonies have been generating journalistic blarney for more than twenty four years, in which time the group has produced some fifteen albums including some very successful music for films.

In their time the Chieftains have rubbed tin whistles with just about everyone- Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Mike Oldfield for instance. They even played the curtain-raiser for the Stones at Slane Castle and the Pope at Phoenix Park.

Under the careful guidance of Paddy Maloney, the Chieftains’ chieftain, they have become the most successful Irish export since Guinness.

They’ve played the Great Wall of China and are currently involved in a project with the musically shameless James Galway. Politically the band makes a virtue of appearing non-aligned, playing up the fact that their harper, Derek Bell, is an Ulsterman among Dubliners. But the force of their devotion to Irish national music and, in particular, Maloney’s dedication as performer and record producer, has done much for the gaelic and republican causes.

Their most recent ceilidh at the Festival Theatre was a more subdued outing than usual. For a start, a good hour of the show was handed over to Mary Black, formerly of De Danaan and now the Sheena Easton of Irish pop.

She was a popular choice for many in the audience and has a winsome contralto reminiscent of the best of Judy Collins. Unfortunately, her repertoire of contemporary folk club songs lacked sparkle.

Kicking off with Eric Bogle’s Leaving the Land, she then sang a few that had been very good to her over the years – Song for Ireland, The Rose of Allendale, Ellis Island and her latest inoffensive little bijou, Katie, Not even Anachie Gordon did more than skim the dark waters of balladry.

Guitarist and composer Declan Sinnott and Patrick Cowley on keyboards provided fine accompaniment but despite their undoubted talents Mary Black and band were a bit low on Irish ergs.

Which could be said of the main men as well. The Chieftains have made a few bob by now but they sure haven’t splurged it on their stage wardrobe. Of course that doesn’t matter except that the whole show ran a shade too much on charm and’informality to really get down to business. The opening medley including Gray’s Pipe and the Flags of Dublin quickly displayed the talents of Matt Molloy, late of Planxty and new to the Chieftains but not new to the B-flat flute. Maloney’s whistles and uileann pipes were matched by Derek Bell on harp while Martin Fay and Seane Keane can play the fiddle in their sleep and just about did.

The programme was larded with bohdrim player, Kevin Conneff’s endearingly fragile tenor. He meandered through the execrable verses of Here’s a Health to the Company Man then during the Independence Hornpipe a local Irish dancer joined the fray in a rare moment of colour and movement.

The Chieftains started to get beyond the preliminaries with an all too short conflation of screen·themes ‘including The Grey Fox, the Ballad of the Irish Horse and Barry Lyndon which highlighted how important the band has been in bringing Irish music to a mass audience.

After showing us what they’d learnt in China; including some startling hammer dulcimer sounds from the gifted Derek Bell, the band without looking at their watches ambled into the home straight with a marathon version of Drowsy Maggie. As each stepped forward the solos ranged from the sublime to the soporific. Molloy’s flute’ again excelled, Keane fiddled but didn’t really get it right, Fay feigned and Derek Bell played Scott Joplin just for something completely different. Then Mary Black came back· for an encore and the band played heighho. Back to the diamond mine.

The sound mix was a treat and band’s personalities blend most amiably but unlike earlier shows, the set lacked depth and some of the Chieftains’ usual Authority. This time round the Chieftains rule, but only OK-ish.

“Celt Following”, The Adelaide Review, No.45, December, 1987, p.32.

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