If it's almost St. Paddy's Day, then The Chieftains must be here
Symphony Hall, Boston, March 12, 2003
By Jeffrey B. Remz
BOSTON - If it's St. Patty's Day, then it's time for The Chieftains to come to Boston. That's the annual rite of spring, of course. And the leading exponent of Irish music did not disappoint before a near capacity crowd.
But this wasn't the typical version of The Chieftains that many have come to know and love. Unfortunately, last fall, Derek Bell, the group's 30-year-veteran oboe, piano and harp player, died in the U.S. just after the release of their very fine "Down the Old Plank" CD combining Irish and country sounds.
Yet, this was not a down in the dumps kind of show at all. Group leader Paddy Moloney came out speaking in native tongue on purpose as a joke before "realizing" he was in Boston, always a city warm to The Chieftains brand of music.
The Chieftains mixed up the nearly two-hour show, presented as part of the FleetBoston Celebrity Series, between older songs and a number of selections from "Old Plank." The first set tended to lack the energy of the second, perhaps with a few more midtempo numbers included in the opening hour.
What was undeniable were the talents of The Chieftains and their various guests. Moloney was stellar on uileann pipes with a sound akin to a bassoon and tin whistle. Kevin Conneff provided the skills on the bodhran, the big round goatskin dumb and vocals, while Matt Molloy and Sean Keane were no slouches either on flute and fiddle.
Each band member had numbers chances to shine with a stint by Molloy on flute in the second particularly energetic.
The quartet also was aided by bluegrass ace Chris Jones and Jeff White, Vince Gill's touring guitarist, on guitars and vocals and Allison Moorer, who has released three country/roots albums, on vocals. Her somewhat smoky voice was particularly strong on "Hick's Farewell," which will appear on The Chieftains' second Old Plank volume.
Especially pleasing were a cast of dancers who made periodic appearances on stage. Veteran Donny Golden and Cara Butler took care of the traditional Irish dancing with great skill. Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, from Ottawa, Canada, combined different forms of dance with a sense of humor and much ability. Jon Pilatzke also played some fine violin. And a group of six youthful dancers also displayed their wares a few times during the show, adding color to the proceedings.
While satisfying on most counts, the show seemed to lack enough of a high energy level. There seemed to be a few too many periods where the music hit midtempo.
Who knows? Maybe the death of Bell still haunts the remaining members. Fittingly, they paid tribute to Bell with a whistle tribute by cellist and vocalist Caroline Lavelle.
Fortunately, they clearly hit their stride big time on the close to the regular set, "Give the Fiddler a Dram."
This has doubtlessly been a difficult period for The Chieftains, but give them credit. Decades into their career, this is not a group seeking to do only the tried and true, but push the envelope.