Saturday 24 August 2019

Piper's progress: Chieftain at large

Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains.
Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Midway through a new documentary on Paddy Moloney, the piper from Donnycarney, Dublin talks about the often awkward place The Chieftains found themselves in back home in the 1970s. On the one hand, there were rock aficionados who thought the stuffily dressed bunch were throwbacks to a bygone era. On the other, there were trad stalwarts who viewed them with suspicion and not just because they were messing with the scriptures of the genre. As Moloney notes, some were none too pleased that The Chieftains appeared to be making such a healthy living from a pursuit that most performed for free.

And the cash was certainly pouring in in 1975, when they finally went professional after a dozen years together. Jo Lustig, something of a folk kingpin thanks to his management of Fairport Convention and Pentangle, had taken them on and immediately set about transforming their fortunes by having them play London's Royal Albert Hall. Not only did the show sell out - largely on the strength of the previous year's Chieftains 4 album, but it garnered some of the most ecstatic reviews Moloney and friends could have hoped for.

Lustig had been astonished that musicians who could deliver an album as revelatory as Chieftains 4 could be part-time and made a bet with Moloney that they would go pro if the Albert Hall gig sold out. Moloney, thinking Lustig was mad to assume The Chieftains could possibly sell that many tickets for such an august venue, happily took him up on his offer. The band were soon quitting their civil service jobs (Moloney had left his position as an accountant some years previously to head up Claddagh Records, which had been founded by Garech Browne, brother of Tara, who was immortalised in The Beatles' 'A Day in the Life').

Footage from the Royal Albert show appears on Paddy Moloney: Chieftain, to be screened on RTÉ One tomorrow at 9.30pm, and the documentary illustrates just how much excitement their thrilling brand of trad could generate. Nobody who had been at the gig that night would have been surprised that The Chieftains were named Band of the Year by Melody Maker that December. They seemed to be everywhere in 1975, including the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, one of the year's biggest films.

The documentary is an affectionate study of one of Ireland's most significant and, indeed, prolific musicians. Made by Liam McGrath, who also delivered beguiling programmes on Finbar Furey and The Dubliners' John Sheahan, it offers a reminder of the importance of Moloney and The Chieftains in helping to popularise traditional Irish music all over the world.

Without The Chieftains, there's every chance trad wouldn't be quite as buoyant as it is today and it's certainly impossible to imagine a contemporary outfit as exhilarating as The Gloaming lighting up stages around the world today.

Moloney remains the sole member from that first line-up in 1962, which comprised the late Sean Potts (tin whistle), the late Martin Fay (fiddle) and Michael Tubridy (Irish flute). The latter, in defiance of Lustig's wish that they go full-time as a working band, somehow kept up the day job: he worked as a structural engineer until 1993, and had been a Chieftain up to 1979. David Fallon was already an elderly man when he joined the fledgling band and would contribute bodhran to their first album, retrospectively titled Chieftains 1. (In all, they released 10 numerically titled albums, before getting around to giving them proper names from the 1980s on.)

There have been several members over the years, but Moloney's uilleann pipes and tin whistle have been constant - and his gifts have been called upon by other musicians time and time again.

Their CV is, frankly, astonishing. They've won six Grammys and have collaborated with music icons from Paul McCartney to the Rolling Stones and from Ry Cooder to Van Morrison. Their most recent album, 2012's Voice of Ages saw a panoply of guests join them for the ride including Bon Iver, The Decemberists and Paolo Nutini.

Their career is garlanded with quirky facts and unlikely collaborations. Not many bands can say they were the first Western act to perform in the old, closed China (1983), or at the Capitol Building, Washington DC, or in front of an audience of a million for a papal visit. And few can boast of collaborating with an astronaut, as Moloney did on the 2012 composition, 'The Chieftains in Orbit' which featured NASA commander Cady Coleman.

If McGrath's film is in danger of slipping into hagiography here and there, it's rescued by the presence of Moloney's wife, Rita, who's both witty and a straight-shooter. She talks of how family life was difficult at the peak of the band's popularity, as her husband would be away in dribs and drabs for six months of the year.

Like any good arts documentary, this one makes the viewer want to rediscover Maloney's music anew and there's so much fantastic work to explore. Chieftains 1 is an obvious place to start but, in truth, it was Chieftains 4 that truly put them on the road.

* After the glut of summer music festivals, this time of year is all about one-off shows. So it's great to see a festival with a difference taking place tonight and tomorrow. Metropolis is billing itself "a massive winter indoor music festival across eight areas" and takes place at Dublin's RDS. Over 100 acts will play over the two days including Mark Ronson, whose Bruno Mars collaboration 'Uptown Funk' is arguably the most emblematic song of 2015 and Jamie xx, responsible for a bona fide album of the year in In Colour. And then, there's the great Hot Chip who are on the road with latest album Why Make Sense?

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