Irish Ambassadors

During a three-decade career that's included 31 albums, the Chieftains have earned the reputation as the world's premier performers of traditional Irish music. In fact, the Irish government has proclaimed the group the country's greatest musical ambassadors.

That's why, at first blush, the most recent Chieftains CD, The Long Black Veil, may have alarmed some of the group's longtime fans. The CD features guest appearances from a host of rock artists, including the Rolling Stones, Sting, Sinead O'Connor and Mark Knopfler. But Chieftains piper, tin whistler and guiding force Paddy Moloney had reassuring words for the band's followers.

"You know, I wouldn't like our audience to think we're going rocker altogether," Moloney said in response to some cries of distress. "We're still very much a traditional Irish band. When we get up there and play, it's traditional Irish music we're playing. But I made a mistake about six years ago of saying to my record company [that] we've done so many records for other people, maybe some day I'll get them onto mine. 'Do you really mean that?' they said. They've pestered me ever since."

Actually The Long Black Veil was far from the Chieftains' first collaboration. For years, they've been guesting at concerts, with appearances at Roger Waters' 1990 production of The Wall in Berlin, and with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and others last year for the Who tribute at Carnegie Hall being two of the highest profile examples. And in 1993, a host of American country music stars joined the Chieftains for Another Country, a CD that explored the connection between Irish and country music.

But The Long Black Veil was, Moloney says, the "big one" as far as collaborative projects go. With its high-profile guests, it introduced a wave of new fans to the group. And what those new fans heard was a CD firmly in the tradition of Irish music and the Chieftains' sound.

Not that The Long Black Veil didn't have some unusual aspects to it. According to Moloney, the sessions for the CD provided a treasure trove of memories for himself and the other members of the Chieftains: Martin Fay (fiddle), Sean Keane (fiddle), Derek Bell (harp), Kevin Conneff (bodhran) and Matt Molloy (flute).

Among the most memorable moments was a late night jam session with the members of the Rolling Stones that resulted in a spirited version of the song "The Rocky Road to Dublin."

"That was a joy," Moloney says now. "We sent a bus for them just in case they got lost. They arrived at seven o'clock in the evening. We were there from two. They brought their own entourage and they brought a bar with them, and it was a great occasion. We got stuck into the music. I thought I was in complete control during the thing. But at two in the morning anyway, the takes were beginning to go down. Two takes was all we did. And we sort of got the grasp of it at that time. It was just a head-on session that just went and I was just saying to them, 'Look, I'll give you the nod when we're coming to the end, when we should be finishing up.' Well, it didn't work out that way. They kept going. So we did a mechanical fade on it. And people got up and danced in the studio. You hear some of that on the track, somebody dancing as well. It was great fun."

Of course, memorable moments are nothing new to Moloney and the Chieftains. Over their career they have done a historic 1983 tour of China, played for Pope John Paul II in 1979 and participated in a host of other special events. They've won three Grammy awards and many other honors. With so many achievements, the Chieftains' place in the Irish musical landscape is secure. And while Moloney feels the band's accomplishments have helped sustain and nurture traditional Irish music, the group hasn't always heard the full-blown praise one might expect.

"Well, the Irish are a funny people," Moloney says. "When we made [our] first album we got the purists having a go at us and saying this arrangement business and putting flutes and whistles together ... I don't know, it was a bit too much for them. It wasn't just sit down and go for it and play tune after tune after tune .... So there was a bit of a 'trash the Beatles,' as I call it, attitude. It needed to be uplifted, to be recognized as well, for the beauty of the music to be brought out a little more. That's what I felt I was doing, and the band was doing when we started up."

"And I'm glad now that so many young musicians and other bands have sprung [up in our wake]," Moloney adds. "They won't always get us credit, but we know these guys. They won't tap you on the back and if they do interviews somewhere else, they never mention the Chieftains, you know -- until they're asked -- but that's Ireland. We're all a bit like that over here. But it's an old tradition, even amongst pipers. The jealousy amongst pipers was always a tradition, in fact. They used to play tricks on one another, and harpists the same. So it's all a part of tradition going back hundreds of years. But they do, in fact [like us], they have said it, and they admire us a lot. And our people back home have admired us greatly for what we have done by way of promoting the Irish music."

The Chieftains play with Sarah McLachlan at 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 1, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Ron Sexsmith opens. Tickets are $10-$40. For info, call 629-3700.

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Alan Sculley