The Chieftain of Endurance
By ian Worpole, Contributor
April / May 2008
With St. Patrick’s season came the mighty Chieftains and their annual tour of the U.S., which began in Albuquerque in February and ended up at Carnegie Hall on March 17. What to say about these titans? This year’s set of gigs, titled “Celtic-Scottish Connections,” marked 34 years of touring in this country alone; they have recorded 44 albums, many in collaboration with the cream of the world’s musicians, from Mongolian throat singers to Van Morrison to Lyle Lovett. They’ve won every honor and award imaginable and composed and performed major film scores. I caught up with founder, frontman, and principal composer Paddy Moloney by phone from his winter home in Florida shortly before the beginning of the tour. I had my customary list of questions in front of me, but Paddy preempted me for forty glorious minutes by answering just about every single one before I could ask it; he knew my little home town back in England (“Ah yes, The Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea!”) and after I mentioned I was in a band with the name Trim the Velvet that had to be changed for a particular reason, Paddy informed me that the first name he came up with for the Chieftains was The Quare Fellows. “It lasted about five minutes.”
Tell us about this year’s tour.
I’ve had the luck to work with many great Scottish players, particularly the young ones. Recently, I was the first non-Scot to be honored by the Scottish Traditional Music Association. At this stage of our career it’s payback time. We like to promote young bands and performers, so the opportunity to put a tour together utilizing just a few [great Scottish players] was too good to pass up, hence the “Celtic-Scottish” moniker. We’ll have different artists joining us at various stages of the tour; a wonderful, gorgeous singer, Alyth McCormack, she sings in Scots-Gallic, does a beautiful “Foggy Dew.” Maureen Fahy on fiddle and vocals, and of course a whole bunch of bagpipers. It’s about time we joined up with them, seeing as we gave them the bagpipes in the first place. We’ll also have two dancers from Canada, Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, they’ve been with us for a few years, also Cara Butler. And Triona Marshall of course, on harp, she is just a phenomenal player.
Is Triona pretty much becoming a full-fledged member of the band?
Well, we always said, after Derek’s passing (Derek Bell, long-time harper for the band, died in 2002) we’d never replace him, but Triona is as close as anything to being a band member. And she’ll always be grateful we rescued her from the orchestra!
After four decades, is the thrill still there?
Oh, the details get to be a bit of a pain, but once we get up there and start playing, it’s priceless, we just have the time of our lives, and we make sure we have guests, young and old, fresh blood. Okay, so we’ve cut back a bit on the length of the tour, just the 19 shows [!] for a month, across the whole country. We used to do two months, but we’re not as young as we used to be!
Do you spend your winters in Florida?
Yes, Naples, for the warmth of course. It’s good for my wife’s health, and I commute to various places while I’m there. The others don’t spend so much time here [in the U.S.] as me, but Matt and his son Peter have just opened a pub like his one in Westport, County Mayo. This one, “The Shaskeen,” is in Manchester, New Hampshire and we had a grand opening. Michael Flatley was there, and I played whistle and cut the ribbon.
What else has been happening for you recently?
Well, the BBC has just made a new documentary that’ll be broadcast over here sometime fairly soon. It’s fun, with interviews with a lot of the lads, Keith Richards talking about how we’ve been around a year longer than them, reminiscing over the recording session. Sting also, lots of people, you’ll love it. There was a tour of Japan; working in Spain with the great Galician piper Carlos Nunez. I worked with composer James Newton on a new film The Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep, and of course we play on the soundtrack. It’s based on a Loch Ness monster idea – more Scottish stuff!
Was the Rolling Stones session as much fun as it sounds?
We’d recorded the Long Black Veil track with Mick [Jagger] previously, but he had so much fun he came back for the Rocky Road session. They brought their whole entourage. I had to boot them out the back every time they wanted a cigarette, but we had a blast. After hours of rehearsal I hit the record button around 11 p.m. and we played until three. It was down at Ronnie Wood’s place in Clane, County Kildare, and I’d arranged for the local pub to stay open if we needed a pint, so we ended up there at three a.m. and called it a night around six. A fantastic night. Another good session was down at Sting’s mansion in South England. We stopped playing to have lunch down by his pond. Derek didn’t notice it was there, and just walked right in. I have a wonderful picture of Derek’s socks drying over Sting’s fireplace while we played. Then we stayed for dinner; he has two chefs.
And as he likes to say, he bought the house for a song – literally.
How about Ry Cooder? [a personal hero].
Well, around the time of the Santiago album, I took Ry down there to Havana and we recorded a few things with that great singer Omara Portuondo, and Pancho Amat. I also got some great film footage, maybe I’ll get it out there one day. Then I left and Ry stayed and next thing I know, he came up with the idea for The Buena Vista Social Club project, which of course was a phenomenon.
So you were in at the beginning of all that?
Absolutely. Now we’re kicking around ideas for a new album with Ry, but nothing is definite yet.
Your collaborations are a Who’s Who of music; is there anyone you wish you could work with that you haven’t already?
Bob Dylan. We’ve come close a few times. He’s up for it but we just haven’t figured out the details. I think he’s actually at the peak of his form, and I think we could do some great stuff. We might be able to get Elvis Costello up on stage at the Carnegie Hall concert.
With Diana [Krall] on “Danny Boy”? Paddy, thanks so much for your time, and good luck with the tour.
Ian, you’re very welcome.