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Breaking From Tradition?

Chieftains Start Out Flat but End With Their Usual Strength and Depth

May 03, 1999|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Could this be one of those rare instances when the world's leading exponents of traditional Irish music would fall flat?

It seemed entirely possible after an uncharacteristically tepid opening to the Chieftains' concert Saturday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. It's not like Paddy Moloney and the boys were terrible. But their usual sparkle was surprisingly missing, at least in the early going in the first of a two-night stand.

They failed to generate sparks with stiffly played songs, epitomized by a rendition of "Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure"--featuring Kevin Conneff's flat vocals--that paled next to the Loreena McKennitt-sung version on the group's new "Tears of Stone" album.

But after stumbling out of the blocks, the Chieftains recovered and did what they do best: make beautiful folk music that tugs at both the heart and the feet.

The group got a boost from Irish step dancers Cara Butler and Donny Golden, who energized the audience time and again with their snazzy, precise footwork, and guest vocalist Yvonne McMahon, who brought emotional depth to several heart-wrenching ballads, including "Never Give All the Heart" and "Raglan Road."

Then Irish American fiddler Eileen Ivers, best known for her work in "Riverdance," added her versatile touch on the melancholy, mysterious "The Flowing Tide" and a frenetically played reel that featured the dramatic, sparring counter-melodies from Ivers and fiddler Sean Keane.

Seemingly inspired by each guest, the Chieftains' playing turned exemplary as they dug into a string of up-tempo jigs and reels, including a splendid version of "The Wandering Minstrel."

Smoothly shifting gears, the group slowed the pace for a pair of somber ballads. The "Main Theme" from "The Long Journey Home," which spotlighted the airy, mystical tin whistle playing of Moloney, was simply mesmerizing, while the immigrant song "Paddy's Lamentation" offered Conneff's most expressive vocal of the night.

Although there's no mistaking their Irishness, the Chieftains also like to dabble in a variety of musical styles. Filling the role singer Akiko Yano played on "Tears of Stone," McMahon sang in Japanese on "Sake in the Jar"; the flamenco-flavored "Maneo"--drawn from 1996's splendid "Santiago" CD and here featuring guest acoustic guitarist Gabriel Doughen--opened a window to Galicia, Spain; and Ivers, using a foot pedal to coax Jimi Hendrix-sounding notes from her fiddle, led the boys through an explosive Afro-Cuban-Irish tune.

While Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Los Lobos, Sinead O'Connor and Elvis Costello have lent their talents to various Chieftains projects, it was refreshing to see such relatively unheralded guests share in the spotlight on Saturday night. (For those fans looking for star power, Sunday's show would have been the ticket--Anjelica Huston and the Police's Andy Summers were scheduled to appear.)

Either way, anyone who plays with these ageless lads should be awe-struck. And why not? Who else has been performing at this level for 36 years?

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