Chieftains cook up a global stew of high-energy, fun songs in Orchestra Hall concert

03.01.10
Chieftains
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

If you go to a concert by the Chieftains, the world's most famous Irish traditional folk group, you might expect to hear, well, Irish traditional folk music. And, at one time, that was true.

But the group's leader, piper Paddy Moloney, has spent the better part of the past two decades planting the Irish flag in all sorts of unlikely places. The group's albums have become celebrations of the musical estuaries where Celtic music meets Spanish, French, South American, bluegrass, country-and-western, rock-'n-roll, and a host of other styles.

But how do you make such an international stew work in a concert setting?

Well, the Chieftains gave it a go at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall on Sunday night, and it ended up being quite an exhilarating experience, an evening of toe-tapping ethnomusicology. Despite some potentially whiplash-inducing shifts in style and mood, it was a high-energy show with an ebullient sense of fun.

And fun is something that the Chieftains didn't always seem to be having. Seeing as they've been a band for 48 years, it shouldn't be surprising that they've had periods when the bloom had gone off the Irish rose, when their Twin Cities concerts — usually somewhere in the proximity of St. Patrick's Day — seemed stiff and by the numbers.

The band's exuberant revival can be attributed not only to Moloney's global explorations, but to an infusion of younger talent intent on keeping Celtic traditions not only alive, but emphatically kicking.

Jon Pilatzke has been a great addition, bringing his brother Nathan along to form a trio of talented tappers with the band's longtime collaborator, Cara Butler, and upping the adrenaline with his fiddle solos. And harpist Triona Marshall proved an able hypnotist with her transcendent plucking on Sunday night.

But the most intriguing new member is singer Alyth McCormack, who not only spun lovely ballads but threw in some rapid-fire Celtic mouth music from her native Scotland. She also lent a sense of spine-chilling urgency to songs found on the group's excellent new "San Patricio," which blends the folk flavors of Ireland and Mexico.

Add cameos by Twin Cities groups like the Shamrock School of Dance and the Macalester College Pipe Band — and a globetrotting finale that visited everywhere from Nashville to Dublin — and you have the most enjoyable local concert the Chieftains have presented in several years.