John Glatt,
The Chieftains:
The Authorized Biography

(St. Martins' Press, 1997)

In 1997, I traveled to a Chieftains' concert in Virginia. I had an interview lined up following the sound check, so I stood at the side of the stage, talking quietly to step dancer Donny Golden about the band as they worked diligently with the technicians. It had been a long afternoon. The Chieftains always strive for a perfect sound, and life can only be complicated when the six Irishmen are involved with a fifty-plus piece orchestra.

Finally, everyone was satisfied. The sound was right. The arrangements were right. Time to knock off and relax before the evening's performance some three hours later.

But no. Paddy Moloney pulled out a whistle and sat next to flutist Matt Molloy and the two began to play. Soon, Martin Fay and Sean Keane had unpacked their fiddles, Kevin Conneff brought over his bodhran and Derek bell returned to his harp. An impromptu session followed that had musicians, technicians and journalists alike bedazzled.

Time passed and one by one, the Chieftains left the circle to grab some food before the concert began. Finally, Paddy stood, picked up his instruments and said: "We have to practice. We have to get it right." This from a band that's been together for more than three decades.

John Glatt's authorized biography of the Chieftains captures that attitude, and more. You cannot think of Irish music without thinking of the Chieftains. In the post-war revival of Irish music, a Chieftain lurks at every corner. One way or another, these players have featured in almost every development, often shining a light for others to follow: the first truly international band; the first to make sometimes obscure cultural connections; probably the first to create a "concept" album; the first to highlight certain instruments and playing styles ... the list goes on.

Perhaps Moloney had the perfect upbringing -- born and raised in Dublin with frequent visits to family in the countryside (Co. Laois). Music was plentiful and the young Paddy was given the opportunity to develop his talents with the best. All around him, popular music was undergoing a major revolution, yet he unerringly continued with tradition.

From an early age, his path crossed with those of others who would feature again and again in his life. Future Chieftain Sean Potts talks of how they "used to play off each other and there was a unique understanding between us from the start." From the earliest days, Paddy knew what his goals were -- not just the playing of tunes, but the creation of a different flavor of music.

The band soon drew the attention not only of audiences wherever it played, but it also attracted musicians from other genres -- musicians' musicians who also appealed to the public at large, how rare. Many would be contented to rest on reputations, but the Chieftains have constantly striven for new interpretations, new boundaries while staying true to the roots of their music.

Since the first album in 1963, the band has in many ways remained remarkably stable. Moloney and Fay remain from that lineup. Keane joined in 1968, Bell three years later, Conneff in 1976 and Molloy in 1979. Only Potts and Michael Tubridy have left since the original formation as well as bodhran players David Fallon (first album) and Peader Mercier (1966-75).

The road at times has been rocky. The book chronicles the ups and downs, noting the personality problems and the pressures of stardom as well as the "power struggles" within the band.

Yet at every seeming impasse, a revitalization has taken place. There appears to be an almost accidental providence in finding the right direction, as well as an innate sense in choosing the right replacement (musician, manager, whatever). One also cannot ignore the effect the wives and children have had on the players. Add to that the Chieftains' magic of a music that is at once tightly arranged while leaving space for virtuoso improvisation.

In some ways, there are regrets that certain projects have fallen by the wayside -- I drool at the prospect of Jerry Garcia with the boys, or Paul Anka. But as their long-time sound engineer says, "These guys just never stop. I don't know how they do it but they do." Whatever never happened has been replaced by other occurrences that will live on forever.

John Glatt, journalist and biographer, has a highly readable style. He has sought details and information from many -- princesses and politicians, musicians and mates -- to provide an entertaining insight into the world's foremost folk music ensemble. I forgive the minor spelling errors in place names and the Irish language but do not agree with his statement that "Bonaparte's Retreat was the first Chieftains record to include the human voice." Fifty-five pages earlier, he writes of Pat Kilduff and his contribution to Chieftains 3 -- the first time I heard a lilter outside the confines of my home; imagine, until then I thought it was a family quirk!

I am also pleased the Glatt does not clear up one mystery concerning the Chieftains. Some things should be left incomplete. I will never go to Iowa, and I also will never know why the Chieftains ... but no, if I tell you, you might solve the mystery!

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]

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