Review: The Chieftains and Friends Perform the Irish Goodbye at Symphony Center

A full house at the Symphony Center on Friday night gave a warm welcome, and standing ovation, to the Chieftains, who were not only celebrating their 58th year together but also, alas, bidding farewell to the concert stage. Since the band now only has three full-time members—Paddy Moloney on the uilleann pipes and tin whistle, Kevin Conneff on the bodhrán (Irish drum) and vocals, and Matt Molloy on flute—the evening also showcased the talent of the Chieftains’ friends.

And they have many friends. A short montage of photographs projected onto a big screen showed some of them, from Dolly Parton and Joni Mitchell to Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan.

Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney, now white-haired at a youthful 81, set the tone for the evening with a mischievous, “Let’s see what I can get away with.”

But the opening moments actually began on a rather wistful note: Moloney on tin whistle and Triona Marshall on harp performing Seán O Riada’s lovely air “Women of Ireland” from Stanley Kubrick’s 1976 film Barry Lyndon. Before long though the energy level rose considerably as the entire band joined in as fiddles, uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle, harp, guitar, and bodhrán all came together in a delightful melange.

Next bodhrán drummer and vocalist Kevin Conneff sang a cappella “North America,” an emigration ballad from County Fermanagh: simple, direct, and straight from the heart.

It wasn’t just music and song. Irish dancing was on full display from the wondrous step dancing of County Clare native Tara Breen (an All-Ireland fiddler) who also doubled on fiddle and saxophone (yes, sax) to the acrobatic dancing of the Pilatzke Brothers, Jon and Nathan, from Canada.

Nathan Pilatzke, who looks like a much younger version of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is all gangly arms and legs. He is a marvel to watch. The brothers along with Cara Butler (Nathan is married to Butler) are members of a dance group called StepCrew who combine traditional Irish step dancing with tap dancing and Ottawa Valley step dancing. It’s definitely high energy—there’s a reason that Nathan has earned the nickname of “crazy legs.” But his brother, Jon (who is also a mean fiddler), is no slouch in the dancing department. Later in the evening he did a brief, but crowd pleasing, version of Michael Jackson’s famous Moonwalk.

The Chieftains have always tried to extend their appeal beyond Irish borders and, indeed, beyond traditional Irish music itself to forge a strong pan-Celtic bond. They’ve surveyed, for example, the Irish-Scottish connection with James Galway on Over the Sea to Skye in 1990; recorded a collection of Breton music (Celtic Wedding in 1987); and collaborated with the Galician piper Carlos Nunez. What’s more, they made an album with Van Morrison, Irish Heartbeat, in 1988; performed at the Great Wall of China; and explored the relationship between traditional Irish music and American country music (Another Country in 1992).

All of these links came together on Friday night. Moloney welcomed to the stage the Scots Gaelic singer Alyth McCormack who hails from the Isle of Lewis and sang the Irish classic “The Foggy Dew” before performing an example of puirt à beul, or mouth music, a rhythmic style of Gaelic singing indigenous to the Hebrides (sort of scat singing, Gaelic style) as the full band joined in. Within minutes the entire auditorium was clapping along to the rhythm.

Wherever and whenever the Chieftains perform they try to include local or regional talent. That was the case at the Symphony Center. Old St. Patrick’s Choir sang a lovely rendition of “Shenandoah” (the American folk song appeared on the soundtrack of the six-hour mini-series “The Irish in America: Long Journey Home,” sung by Van Morrison). Then the entire band played the rousing jig, “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” accompanied by the wild dancing of the Pilatzke Brothers. The “Long Journey Home” segment concluded with Elvis Costello’s theme song from the series with vocals provided by Conneff who accompanied himself on the bodhrán along with the band, choir, and McCormack.

Pipe bands were also represented. The Caledonia Kilty Band from nearby Mishawaka, Indiana––founded in 1954 and one of the oldest pipe bands in the United States––played a march with McCormack on the fiddle.

There were plenty of quiet moments in between as when Moloney played a haunting, melancholy tune on the tin whistle.

In addition to the Chieftains, the long finale once again featured McCormack; a sax solo by Breen; the Dennehy Dancers dancing along to the always-popular sing-along “I’ll Tell Me Ma”; and even an electric guitar solo. Everyone got into the spirit of the evening: at one point, a giddy McCormack could be seen recording the proceedings on her smartphone and then spanning out to capture the audience. “It’s the Irish version of the Grand Ol’ Opry,” my friend Brigid Murphy concluded.

But the evening was not over yet.

In homage to yet another Celtic country, Brittany, the encore consisted of the Breton tune “Dans Bro Leon,” with McCormack on the tin whistle along with the Kilty Band, the dancers, and Breen on the saxophone. As the evening came to its glorious conclusion, the dancers and choir made their way through the auditorium, picking up some audience members along the way as everyone ended up onstage in a celebratory Breton dance.

It was a marvelous love fest and a fitting Irish goodbye.

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June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.