While I’ve known about the Chieftains for many years, my interest in traditional Irish music has always been a fleeting one at best. It wasn’t until I witnessed the band firsthand as a support act for Jethro Tull that I began to understand why the Chieftains were held in high esteem by fans worldwide. Aside from their superb compositional craftsmanship and incomparable instrumental virtuosity, there is always a deep sense of attachment, enthusiasm and respect for the music they make and for the genre of which they are the foremost ambassadors. These are the elements that prominently shine through whether you’re listening to their recorded works or enjoying a live performance.
The Chieftains came together in the late ’50s with the purpose of preserving the purity of Celtic music. Paddy Moloney (uilleann pipe), Michael Tubridy (flute), Martin Fay (fiddle) and Sean Potts (tin whistle) were members of Sean O’Raida’s Ceoltoiri Chualann, a short-lived but influential Irish folk orchestra that eschewed traditional unison playing in favor of adding a multi-dimensional approach which stressed harmonic interplay within the framework of O’Raida’s somewhat complex arrangements. When Ceoltoiri Chualann ran its course, Moloney, Turbridy, Fay and Potts were enlisted to record what would be the critically-heralded Chieftains I (1964) at the urging of Claddagh Records founder Garech Browne.
Much of the Chieftains early repertoire was gathered from traditional Celtic songs written in the 17th and 18th century, but it was Moloney’s visionary arrangements that cleverly melded tradition with modern ideas adding texture and color to the music. By the release of Chieftains 4 (1974) Moloney had moved beyond mere creative interpretation and into composition while remaining within the framework of traditional Irish music. Moloney and the Chieftains have provided evocative scores for television, film, ballet and theatrical productions such as Treasure Island, The Grey Fox, Year of the French, The Playboy of the Western World and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in which the group were awarded an Oscar for their efforts. The global fame of the Chieftains have also afforded them the opportunity of working outside of their traditional roots in variety of other musical forms and musicians. The band has dipped it’s toes into Galician and South American music with artists like Los Lobos and Ry Cooder while enjoying worthwhile collaborations with a broad range of artists from Elvis Costello, Tom Jones and Van Morrison to Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and the Rolling Stones.
The title, The Best of the Chieftains, is a bit deceiving in that, unlike most retrospective collections it doesn’t highlight the best of the band over the course of their career. Instead this set culls exclusively from just three albums, The Chieftains 7 (1977), The Chieftains 8 (1978) and The Chieftains 9: Boil the Breakfast Early (1979). So while The Best of the Chieftains may not include songs from the band’s groundbreaking beginnings (you’ll want to check out The Chieftains:The Claddagh Years Boxed Set for that) the listener will be more than satisfied with the moments of musical magic supplied here. The disc gets off to a celebratory start with “Up Against the Buachalawns” and “Boil the Breakfast Early”, two rousing Irish romps that feature the impressive, wistful tin whistle stylings of virtuoso Matt Molloy (Bothy Band)who replaced original Chieftains Turbidy and Potts prior to the recording of Chieftains 9. While this 12 track set replete with its share of uplifting, traditional toe-tappers like “Oh! The Breeches Full of Stitches”, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley/The Reel with the Beryle” and “Friel’s Kitchen” from the Grammy-nominated Chieftains 7, it’s their more subdued, melancholy moments that steal the show here. Aching ballads such as “The Job of Journeywork” and “An Speic Seoigheach” are simply gutwrenching and it certainly doesn’t help that Moloney’s tender tin whistle passages tear at the emotions, ripping your heart out while Fay and Sean Keane hypnotize, lacing the hazy background with a mournful yet buoyant fiddle duet.
Whether you’re a fan of Celtic music or oblivious to the genre altogether, the music of the Chieftains will warm the coldest heart, mesmerize even the most discriminating listener and uplift the downtrodden soul. For the uninitiated, The Best of the Chieftains is great place to start, but by all means don’t stop there.