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Jan 18, 2007

Age Old Music

With more than four decades of musical experience under their belts, the members of the Irish Celtic band The Chieftains have quite a few interesting stories to tell, to say the least.

The band has either collaborated or performed with numerous artists from country darling Allison Krauss, jazz princess Diana Krall and her husband, Elvis Costello, to Sting, Van Morrison and Bela Fleck. Paul McCartney even danced a little Irish jig to their music when they played a few special tunes at Krall and Costello's wedding, where they exchanged jokes with Elton John.

“We often have that,” said Chieftains founder Paddy Maloney on surprise guest appearances. “You never know who's going to pop up.”

Other famous fans include The Boss himself, guitarist Ry Cooder, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.

“I was disappointed that I couldn't nail down Bob Dylan for ‘The Journey Home,'” said Moloney about a special collaboration that never came to fruition. “I had a song he was going to do, but we couldn't get together at the same place, same time. That was the one I missed out on, but maybe in the future something will pop up. He is always there doing great things.”

The Chieftains recently embarked on its annual U.S. winter tour, marking 33 years of touring North America. So what's the secret of keeping a band together?

“I think the magic is in the music,” said Maloney. “At the same time all these guys are great musicians, individual soloists and they have their own things, done their own albums and they appear separately beside with The Chieftains. I am just very lucky about the way it turned out - our little trip for the last 45 years - I wouldn't have had it any other way.”

You know you've made it when your home country puts out a postage stamp of you, as Ireland recently did for the band which initially formed in 1962 by Moloney, who plays the uillean (pronounced illi-an) pipes and the tin whistle. Uillean translated from Gaelic means elbow. The double-octave range instrument, that one has to sit down to play, originated in Ireland about 400 years ago.

“It's kind of the thing we have been doing over the years,” said Moloney on working and collaborating with other artists. “I've been working a bit with Ry, he has a album coming out and it's going to be brilliant altogether.”

The Chieftains - Moloney, Matt Molloy, Seán Keane and Kevin Conneff - lost a dear friend and longtime band mate Derek Bell in 2002, who had joined The Chieftains in 1974, and was not only known for his work on the harp, but also on the oboe, horn and keyboards, among other things. The group's album, “Live From Dublin: A Tribute To Derek Bell” was nominated for a 2006 Grammy in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album.

“There is that sound of The Chieftains that is peculiar to us, everyone knows it's us when they hear our sound; they are able to recognize it, and I still think we have it,” said Maloney. “We have a good way of putting across a show, the music itself being a priority of course. We don't depart from who we are and that is traditional Irish musicians.”

In the early days, in order to support his musical career, Moloney took a nine-to-five job in accounting with Baxendales - a building firm where he met his future wife, Rita.

Moloney named the group The Chieftains, inspired by Irish poet John Montague, and in 1968 - with a few albums under his belt with The Chieftains - left Baxendales to work as the managing director of Claddagh Records. In 1975, The Chieftains began performing full time, marking the endeavor with a historic show at Albert Hall in London. The group underwent several lineup changes and finally jelled with its trademark members in the late 1970s.

Over its career, The Chieftains have released 35 albums, won six Grammys, an Oscar (for the 1976 Stanley Kubrick film “Barry Lyndon”), an Emmy and a Genie (Canada's equivalent of the Oscar). Keane joined The Chieftains in 1968 as a master fiddler, who was classically trained at the Dublin School of Music. Conneff sings and plays the bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn), an ancient frame drum with a wooden body and a goatskin top that is hit with a double-headed stick called a cipín. Molloy plays the flute and moved to Dublin in the early 1970s to work for a national airline as an engineer. He became a member of The Chieftains in 1979. He and his wife also run the famed pub Matt Molloy's visited by such stars as Twiggy, Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, and the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Over the years, The Chieftains have played a few key and momentous performances such as being the first Western group to play on the Great Wall of China and the first group to perform in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The band also performed during Pope John Paul's visit to Ireland in 1979 in front of roughly 1.35 million people. Most recently, Moloney played at a 9/11 memorial service in October in New York City. The Chieftains have also performed with numerous symphony orchestras and worked on collaborations including ones with the aforementioned musicians.

In 2006, The Chieftains recorded “Further Down the Old Plank Road” - a follow up to “Down the Old Plank Road.” Both works showcased a collaboration between The Chieftains and some of the best American country and roots and Nashville musicians around today like Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, John Hiatt, Allison Moorer, John Prine, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Lyle Lovitt and Patti Griffin.

“The music - it's old country music, of course - it would have come over with the Irish in the last few hundred years, and made it's mark,” said Moloney on the song selections for both albums that are both Irish favorites and country standards. “I did a bit of research and I came up with about 40 or 50 songs that either have the musical connection or the lyric connection.”

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