Event Reviews

The Chieftains

with Yat-Kha

Jacksonville Performing Arts Center, Jacksonville, FL • March 4, 2000

Down in the depths of rock and roll, way before Elvis or Bob Wills, before slavery brought polyrhythmic Gulla work chants to the Delta, lies the great Celtic musical tradition. Ireland cranks out more top notch musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world, and Irish music seeps throughout the world, from sea chanteys and hornpipes, to Appalachian spirituals, to BBC’s Top of the Pops . Starting 40 years ago, Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains revived and recaptured that sound, the sound of a shaman’s Bodhran drum and the mournful wail of Uileann pipes.

The core of tonight’s sound comes from the six current members of the band. Paddy Moloney is the nominal leader of this Irish collective, playing Uileann pipes (a sort of Irish Bagpipe) and tin whistle. Kevin Conneff sings while playing the Bodhran drum, with Matt Molloy on flute and twin fiddle players Martin Fay and Sean Keane. Derek Bell wraps up with harp, keyboards, and “assorted instruments.” Besides these six, a steady stream of friends and helpers wander on and off stage, adding acoustic guitar, vocals, and sundry entertainment.

Performing a steady stream of reels, flings, horn pipes, and jigs, it’s not quite clear what particular tune is up at any one moment; some are announced, others just appear briefly, only to sneak away, and all are a wonderful product of skilled musicians who can slide effortlessly between any two songs, from “Long Black Veil” to “Jumping Jack Flash.” Drummer and vocalist Kevin Conneff sang the haunting “May Morning Dew,” a traditional song of the emigrant longing for home. The Irish are a people in Diaspora, torn between the green field of home and the need and desire to make enough to eat, somewhere, anywhere, and that is often as not on the isle of Eire. Striking Yvonne McMahon rendered “Lowlands of Holland” between costume changes. Periodically, a pair of Irish Step dancers (Donny Golder and Deidre Goulding) sprang from the wings, whipping the crowd to a frenzy. Joining them was the beautiful Mairin Fahy, who fiddled and sang when not step dancing to the faster tunes.

The Chieftains, however casual their beginning, are now the kings of the traditional Irish sound. One associated Ireland with a fast, noisy style of intricate rhythms and sparkling fast notes, but the Chieftains show another side of the music. A wavering, spare sound, floats forth from time to time, now associated with the New Age movement. The transition between these two spheres is quick and abrupt, leaving the audience always in doubt about what the next song would sound like.

The highlight of the show came near the end, when traditional Tuvan group Yat-Kha came on stage to do a little throat singing. These lonely nomadic herders of central Asia train themselves to sing in several voices simultaneously, and it’s an effect that is truly astonishing. Accompanied by a drum and a western bass, the effect is similar to riding a great steed across the steppes of central Asia. They only did 3 short songs, none really introduced, but provided an unusual central focus to the evening. Completely unknown a decade ago, Tuvan sounds are slowly entering the Western musical vocabulary.

As the evening wound on, more and more musicians and guests drifted across the stage. As the show ended and the audience screamed “encore,” an additional six people equipped with banjos and pipes appeared, cranking through a set of reels including “Maid of Cisco” and “Drowsy Maggie,” to wrap the show. We all stopped for a pint of bitter before we headed home, and agreed this was a fine show by the finest musicians in all of Eire. ◼

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