Friday Night: The Chieftains 50th Anniversary Tour At Jones Hall

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The Chieftains with the Houston Symphony Jones Hall February 15, 2013

When your band's been around for half a century, you could probably be forgiven for reliving past glory and staying safely within the established confines of whatever envelope you've developed for yourself. Just don't tell that to the Chieftains, who celebrated their 50th anniversary last year by releasing an album (Voice of Ages) and now embarking on a 28-city tour.

That kind of longevity also brings a certain amount of respect from your peers (or so you'd hope), and any Chieftains show is likely to be loaded with special appearances and surprises. That was certainly the case Friday night at Jones Hall, where the Chieftains were joined by the Houston Symphony and several guests, providing a satisfying mix of Irish tradition and classical sensibility.

Founding member Paddy Moloney is famously quoted as saying, "Let the music speak for itself," and for the most part they do. The diminutive Moloney is a reluctant front man at times, hurrying through introductions and sometimes straining our ears with his low volume, thickly accented introductions. But that's a minor complaint, and speaks more to the man's desire to get back down to it rather than bloviate at length.

Three of the four original/surviving band members were onstage Friday: Moloney, vocalist/bodhrán player Kevin Conneff (with the band since 1976), and flautist Matt Molloy (since 1979). Violinist Seán Keane was AWOL, and I wasn't able to determine the reason for his absence.

In Keane's stead, the band was joined by Triona Marshall on harp and keyboard, Jeff White on guitar, fiddler Deanie Richardson, and members of Ottawa's StepCrew: Nathan and Jon Pilatzke (who also multitasked on fiddle) and lead dancer Cara Butler.

The show began with what has to be considered a warm-up, at least for those in attendance who aren't regular symphony-goers. Conductor Stuart Chafetz led the performance of Malcolm Arnold's "Four Scottish Dances," which were met with polite applause, if not outright enthusiasm. That was reserved for the arrival of the band, who took their positions stage right and hit the ground running (metaphorically, as they were all seated), playing a sort of "dueling pipes/horns" thing with Symphony French horn player Williem VerMuelen during the send-up "Planxty Mozart."

VerMuelen, who my notes tell me looks a lot like NewsRadio's Jimmy James, punctuated his parts with a little impromptu step dancing, a burst of enthusiasm which put him at odds with many in the orchestra, who often looked bored. Unimpressed with the arrangements or bummed at missing out on All-Star Weekend festivities? I couldn't say.

The primary focus of the evening was the Moloney's connection to Houston and the space program. His son Padraig worked for NASA, meaning Moloney has visited the Bayou City much more often than your average Irishman. This bond was strengthened when astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman took Moloney's tin whistle and one of Molloy's flutes to the International Space Station and played "The Chieftains in Orbit" for St. Patrick's Day, 2011. Coleman joined the band for several numbers Friday night, including the closing medley.

And the interstellar love didn't end there. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, currently on the ISS, joined band on vocals and guitar -- via previously recorded video -- on a cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance." Moloney is clearly proud of the fact the Chieftains' longevity is culminating with their music being celebrated in space.

There were more guests, as there always are. The Chieftains don't give fans a lot of chances to see them live in recent years, popping up at the odd folk/bluegrass festival more often than not, so this tour is bringing out a number of special appearances. On Friday, the group was joined by youngsters from the McTeggert School of Irish Dance for several songs, including "Long Journey Home" and "Paddy's Lamentation." The Houston Highlanders, the city's oldest bagpipe and drum band, were also on hand, and returned for the encore (a rendition of "An Dro"). Finally, the Clear Creek High School Chamber Singers sang along on the execution ballad "The Night Before Larry was Stretched."

See kids, it's not just that hippity-hop music that tackles the tough social issues.

There were other chestnuts, especially from 1995's Long Black Veil (perhaps the band's most recognizable release). Vocalist Alyth McCormack was in fine form for "Mo Ghile Mear" and "The Foggy Dew."

I imagine plenty in the audience would've been happy with a two-hour greatest hits retrospective, but this was a symphony gig, so you got "Four Scottish Dances" as well as "Galician Overture," Moloney's almost 11-minute tribute to the Celtic heritage of northwestern Spain (from 1996's Santiago). There's no denying the crowd (long in the tooth, even by Symphony standards) perked up noticeably when the bodhrán kicked in. Moloney also has an amusing habit of yelping when a song is over, which gives the audience a nice cue for when to applaud.

And at its best, Friday night's show captured those moments when the Uilleann pipes, harp, and violins all kick in in just the right way, giving rise to those waves of swelling emotion that catch up the entire crowd, making everyone in attendance Irish, if only for a few minutes.

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