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Chieftains Show the Pluck of the Irish

Pop music: The Emmy-winning band, which is coming to Costa Mesa, continues to keep once-endangered Celtic music alive and well . . . and current.

March 19, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If any group can lay legitimate claim to the phrase "been there, done that," it's the Chieftains. The veteran Irish musicians--who play Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where they are being presented by the Philharmonic Society--have performed in almost every imaginable musical context during a career that stretches across three-and-a-half decades.

"You name it," says group founder / uilleann pipes player Paddy Moloney. "We've pretty much done it."

They won a Grammy--their fifth in a row and their 16th altogether--for their latest album, "Santiago" (RCA). Their previous release, "The Long Black Veil" (RCA), has sold more than 500,000 copies, making it their first gold record in the U.S.

Guest stars on the two albums include Linda Ronstadt, Los Lobos, Sting, Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor--a stellar collection typical of the unusual collaborations into which the Chieftains have entered over the course of their 30-plus albums.

As the New York Times has noted: "The Chieftains have the rare ability to find connections between singers and songs, between Irish and other folk traditions, that aren't always obvious."

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The fascinating get-togethers have included a performance with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Tokyo Philharmonic and 150 chanting Buddhist monks at the Todajiji Temple in Japan in 1994. In 1983, the Chieftains became the first Western group to perform with a Chinese folk orchestra. In 1990, they took part in Roger Waters' "The Wall" concert in Berlin before an audience of 350,000. They also have provided music for such films as "Barry Lyndon" and "Treasure Island."

"I can't say that we've had any sort of master plan," Moloney said from a tour stop in Baltimore. "Whenever we've gotten together with someone, somewhere, it always seemed the right thing to do at the time."

"Santiago," from which some of Thursday's program will be taken, is a case in point.

"It goes back to a performance we did in the '80s in the [Spanish] seaport town of Vigo," Moloney said, "where we met Carlos Nunez, who pretty much became the seventh member of the group."

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Moloney was especially fascinated by Nunez's playing of the Spanish bagpipes and their similarity to his uilleann pipes. Plus, he said, the Galician area of Spain bears strong resemblances both geographically and culturally to the Celtic world of Ireland.

"The music of Galicia, after the Scottish music, I find closest to ours. It has the same kind of power and passion. You know, years ago, in the country down at my grandmother's place, people would always say 'Come on, sit down and play something with us.' And that's the attitude that we got in Galicia, and later in Cuba when we went there to record. It was just magical, and very much like being at home."

The Chieftains far-ranging musical activities are one reason why the band has remained so fresh and alive. ("There are an awful lot of marriages that don't last that long," Moloney noted with a chuckle.)

Equally important is the group's dedication to keeping traditional Irish music alive.

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"For a tradition like ours to flourish," Moloney said, "I believe it must be played today's way, today. That is, you can play it traditionally and yet make it more exciting, with different instruments, harmonies and so forth, without interfering with the traditional way of playing.

"We still get up there after 35 years and play as solid traditional music as we ever did, with the same amount of eagerness. And when you add to that the feeling you get from fitting it in with other cultures, it just makes it that much more exciting.

"The fact is that we once used to worry about this music fading away. But now there are no fears of the sort we had in the '40s or '50s, that the traditional music was going to die out. It's here; it's here to stay, and I'm happy to believe that the Chieftains have had something to do with keeping it alive."

* The Chieftains play Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Sold out. Presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (714) 553-2422.

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