The Chieftains are still evolving, after more than 50 years

Paddy Moloney interview

From left, Kevin Conneff, Paddy Moloney and Matt Molloy of The Chieftains.

“A U.S. tour would not be the same unless we went to McCarter,” said Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains about the group’s Feb. 26 concert at the McCarter Theater in Princeton.

He called the McCarter “one of our favorite theaters in the world; it has that magic about it. I remember the first time we played it, it was in the mid- to late-’70s and we took photographs on the stage because it has that beautiful old feel about it.”

Assembled 57 years ago and led by the tin whistle and Uilleann pipes of Moloney, The Chieftains experimented with and eventually crafted a sound that is recognizable the world over. They have performed for British royalty, Pope John Paul II, in front of The Berlin Wall and on the Great Wall of China as well as with musicians from multiple genres and walks of life.

Moloney knows it has been a great ride, and one which keeps getting better with age.

“It’s been a fantastic musical journey, to be honest; I don’t know where the years have of gone,” he said with a laugh that would warm even the coldest of hearts. “We’ve had such a great time and we’re still going and going; for instance, we went back to Japan last year for the first time in 30 years and did the best Japanese tour that we’ve ever done, and we loved meeting up with young musicians who have taken to Irish music. There’s a group of girls who call themselves The Lady Chieftains, and they even have a little card; they formed a Chieftains fan club for us over there.

“Where the years have gone, of course, is beyond me. I mean, the first time we played the States was ’72 in New York and we’ve been going ever since.”

The name, The Chieftains, comes from the Irish literary world, where Moloney found what he thought was just going to be the title of their first album. And, well, it stuck around for awhile.

“It was before ’62, in fact, and we didn’t have the name The Chieftains for the band; it was an Irish poet named John Montague who gave us the name. He had a book called ‘Death of a Chieftain’ and we decided that’d be a nice name for the first album that came out in ’62. And, well, here we are.”

Prior to 1962, as the band was getting their signature sound fine-tuned — a sound that would lead them to becoming one of the most sought-after recording and performing artists of all time — they bumped around Ireland and parts of Europe, and made a few friends along the way.

“There was this top disc jockey in Europe, and he had us on his evening program where he’d be playing The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and then in the middle out comes The Chieftains with this strange noise,” he said. “Then doing the film with Stanley Kubrick in ’75 (‘Barry Lyndon’) … we didn’t go full time professional until 1975 … we recorded with Paul McCartney in 1972 and eventually in 1980 I did the B-side of ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ a song called ‘Rainclouds.’ but there’s different people who have loved our sound and wanted to have it on their albums.

The cover of The Chieftains’ 2012 album, “Voice of Ages.”

“I twisted things around and eventually we did The Long Black Veil album (1995), among other ones. I had a Christmas album. But The Long Black Veil was a great breakthrough for us and got us a couple of our six Grammys. Asking Sting to sing in Gaelic … he wanted to sing the whole song in Gaelic, which was a challenge for him, but we did it half and half. Then The Stones we had in the studio, and that was a riot; I could write a book on it (laughs)! We did ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ and I usually say it was stone by stone, but that was all great, and various other artists that we’ve had.

“We still continue with younger people like The Decemberists; we did that on our last album (Voice of Ages), our 50th for the 50th year.

“The record company is still after us to do more, especially for next year because it’s the 25th anniversary of The Long Black Veil, and they’re still after us to do two more albums. There’s always something going on at the studio that I’m interested in.

“I did a piece for my grandson when he was born and I concentrated on rhythm based on a Dvorak piece that we performed with The Nashville Symphony a couple of years ago for the first time, and someday I want to make a huge production of it onstage. So it never stops.”

With all those connections and years of experience under his belt, does Moloney ever get nervous before, during or after a performance?

The cover of “Irish Heartbeat,” the 1988 album by Van Morrison and The Chieftains.

“Oh gosh, yeah,” he said with his infectious laugh. “I get nervous more so for a small audience than for a large audience. We had a gig here in Dublin Castle for 40 people, a corporate concert, and they can be nerve-racking just as much; I never take anything for granted. I always have a little bit of nerves going on; the bigger concerts are sometimes easier to command. We’ve played at huge festivals, The Berlin Wall, Roger Waters. The Pope gig was for 1.2 million, which was incredible. But we take it all in our stride.”

“We’ve got a great team with The Chieftains and although it’s only three of us that tour these days, along with us we have some fantastic young musicians in their 30s and 40s and a lovely singer named Alyth McCormack from the island of Lewis off the West Coast of Scotland, a Scotch-Gaelic community … she sings a great version of ‘Foggy Dew’ and has the voice of an angel. Along with that we had Derek Bell, or Ding Dong Bell as we used to call him, who appeared many times with us at McCarter Theatre, who passed away years ago, but now we have a harp player named Tríona Marshall. She’s incredible and does a version of O’Carolan’s Concerto that’s the best I’ve ever heard.

“We’re also very fortunate to have Jon and Nathan Pilatzke. who do an extraordinary style of dance and all to Irish music, of course. Jon is a master fiddle player; I didn’t know he could play the fiddle when I asked him to dance 16 years ago (laughs) and he is now sort of my lead fiddle player onstage, and he’s just amazing. I’m very fortunate to have all these young people and you’ll hear them perform their own solo bits and that’s a great thing about The Chieftains, it’s like a family. We are a family. We stick together and have great fun and they all love going on a Chieftains tour.

“We are also going to be calling on some of your great talent that you’ve got near Princeton; we have a local pipe band because we do the march, ‘The Battle of San Patricio’ … There’s a local choir who are fantastic and they’re going to sing two of the songs from (the 1998 soundtrack to) ‘The Long Journey Home’: ‘Shenandoah,’ which we did with Van Morrison, and a song that Elvis Costello wrote the words for, ‘Anthem.’ We’re going to have some of your wonderful local dancers, too, so it’s a big show. It’s not just the three lads from The Chieftains. It has grown and grown and it gets better every time.”

When asked his favorite part of being on the road and how he manages the rigors of touring, Moloneys said: “You hit the nail on the head there. It’s once we hit the boards, the stage … that’s when it all pans out. Getting there and the travel is a terrible nuisance; it’s getting more difficult every day. Whether its airplanes or taking a bus from wherever we are staying at the time … we are starting this tour in Seattle, then to Portland and then down to California. That part of it is the worst because you have to put up with the pitfalls of all that. I remember going down through Carolina on a road that was ice and snow packed along the highway on a big bus and it took us eight hours to get there because we couldn’t fly.

“I try to avoid any long journeys on the day of a concert. But just to get to the gig and do our little soundcheck then go have dinner and off we go to the concert is always great.”

For more information, visit mccarter.org or thechieftains.com.

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