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This Irish band ain’t fiddlin’ around

By Staff | Feb 23, 2011

First it’s the brogue, and then the stories of the people he’s met and the places he’s been in a career spanning 50 years, that let you know you’re talking to a real legend in traditional Irish music.

As the leader of The Chieftains, a group that has six Grammys under its belt, Paddy Moloney is the ebullient spokesman for the band, which also includes fiddler Sean Keane, flautist Matt Molloy and bodhran player Kevin Conneff .

Moloney himself has played the tin whistle and uilleann pipes since he was a young lad growing up in Dublin. He formed the original lineup of The Chieftains in 1962 and they took their name from The Death of a Chieftain by John Montague, an Irish poet and author.

In 1975, The Chieftains started playing together full-time and have since put out some 25 albums and worked with such artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, Elvis Costello and The Rolling Stones.

The group has also been named the official Musical Ambassadors for their home country. Floating in space right at this moment are one of Malloy’s flutes and a tin whistle from Moloney, which were taken to the International Space Station by astronaut Cady Coleman. There has even been talk of a space-to-ground concert in the works.

Recently, Jan. 27th was proclaimed Paddy Moloney Day in NYC, and included in the ceremony were tributes from Bono, Sting, Carlos Nunez and Liam Neeson.

To promote their album San Patricio, inspired by the soldiers in St. Patrick’s battalion in the Mexican-American War, The Chieftains are taking the show on the road with a month-long tour and stops in more than 20 cities, including Morgantown on March 8.

Recently, I asked Paddy Moloney to talk a little about the latest album, the tour and the approaching 50-year milestone.

Graffiti: So, you’ve been at this for a long time, when a lot of guys would have hung it up by now. What keeps you going?

Moloney: Oh, the madness [laughs]. The music madness I think has always been there; it got me into it when I was a child. I was 6 years of age when I started to play a whistle and moved on to the (uilleann) pipes when I was 9.

Music has always been a great love of mine; my grandparents played, and there was great encouragement in school as well, so it just took off. I loved all kinds of music when I was a child — I even had a skiffle band for a while — but traditional music was always my forte and I was always looking to put a group together with the proper people and the proper sound and that happened for me eventually in ’62 when I started The Chieftains. …

And now, as Matt Molloy says, I’m the mommy. They sort of look to me for what’s he up to now. I’m always at it. We talked about retiring — and we have been slowing down. But as my wife will tell people, for the last 10 years, he’s been in rehearsal for retirement. It’s very difficult to get away … and now, next year coming up is our big 50 years and there’s a huge program being planned behind my back [laughs].

Graffiti: I read recently about the flutes that are now up in space at the International Space Station. Can you tell me about that?

Moloney: I couldn’t believe it. I opened the paper here, and there’s a photograph of Cady Coleman playing the flute … she goes on to say (in the article) she has great love for The Chieftains. And before she left in November, when she spoke to me about this, she said she’d like to do a link-up in space. It would be absolutely tremendous to have that little duet.

Graffiti: And then you truly will have conquered the universe.

Moloney: [laughs] Yeah, it wouldn’t be the first time, though, to be honest. About 15 years ago, a tin whistle of mine went up in the space shuttle Discovery that went around the world five or six times … And now it’s in the Grammy museum in Los Angeles.

Graffiti: Can we talk a little about the new album, San Patricio? I understand you collaborated again with Ry Cooder, with whom you have worked in the past.

Moloney: Yeah, you know, I was asked to do some music on the American Civil War several years back, and I did come across the story of the San Patricio, which is not known back home (in Ireland) or even over here (in the U.S.). It’s not in the history books.

It was a tremendous story about this Irish man, John Riley, who put together a battalion at the request of (Gen. Antonio Lopez de) Santa Anna. A lot of the Irish deserted over to the Mexicans because they didn’t fancy shooting Catholics. Forty of them got hanged and it was quite a brutal day.

It inspired me — I was wanting to write a big symphony about it –but I traveled to Mexico, and I always had my tin whistle with me, and I’d join in with the musicians down there. I could have done four albums. Ry encouraged me all the time to do it, and he came on to co-produce some of the tracks.

Speaking to some of the Mexican musicians while we were working on this, their stories (of growing up) were so similar to us, to the Irish. The music, and the dancing as well, so universal.

Graffiti: You’ve collaborated with a lot of different musicians on a lot of different-sounding albums. Are there any other artists you’d like to work with or any other genres you’d like to dabble in?

Moloney: The last 12 months I’ve been working on an idea and a project … I’ve discovered all this huge Irish connection in Argentina, how the music made its way across … and to the Portuguese and into Brazil and Cuba. The melodies are so beautiful like ours. I’ve come across a wealth of music from all over the world, I just need another 50 years to get on with it [laughs].

Incidentally, a friend of mine has composed a suite for Nelson Mandela, who has been known to dance to Irish jigs. I was asked to contribute a jig — the African translation of (Mandela’s) middle name is troublemaker — so I called it The Troublemaker’s Jig.

Graffiti: So now let’s talk a little bit about this concert. You’re coming to Appalachia, where bluegrass music and the music of our Celtic roots is very much ingrained in our culture. What can the West Virginia audience expect?

Moloney: It’ll be mainly good traditional Irish music — a lot of which made its way over, as you said, into those parts of the country, different parts of the Appalachians, the mountains and all over the place. But it’s not just The Chieftains just playing music. We have a terrific show for you as well; it’s a big show. And covering bluegrass, we have a tremendous fiddle player named Deanie Richardson. Last year she was nominated by the American Music Awards in the best fiddle-bluegrass playing. One of the things she didn’t realize is that a lot of the music she was playing was Irish music. So now she sits in and plays the whole evening with us. We also have Jeff White, who is a great singer, brilliant bluegrass player, he tours mostly with Vince Gill. So bluegrass is well-represented in the show.

We’ve got two amazing dancers from Canada, two guys called the Pilatzkes — Jon and Nathan — their style of dancing is out of this world. … Just to boast a little bit, when Elvis Costello married Diana Krall, their wedding in London was at Elton John’s house. The Chieftains were invited and we got up to do a few tunes and the boys danced. Sir Elton couldn’t help it –he was up shuffling around. But also Mr. McCartney, Sir Paul, he couldn’t hold back and he was up with legs flying all over the place. It was the funniest (thing) you ever saw in your life! Somebody did video it but I cannot get my hands on it.

Graffiti: I’m sure it will pop up on YouTube. I can’t wait to see it.

Moloney: Oh yeah. So that’s the Pilatzkes. And then we have the princess of dance, Cara Butler, sister of Jean. And also local dancers and a pipe band and any other local musicians who might happen to turn up. Also, we have vocalist Alyth McCormack and harpist Triona Marshall. The show is great; it moves.

But this (past 50 years) has been such a musical journey. And I think I won’t be retiring, I’ll be going down with my boots on.