Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Beyond Tradition: Chieftains Once Again Prove Mixmasters

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Beyond Tradition: Chieftains Once Again Prove Mixmasters

Article excerpt

SOME traditional Irish musicians have little respect for the Chieftains. Everyone agrees they can play their instruments, and that they know a whole lot about traditional Irish music, but these statements of fact are always colored by some disparaging remark. The Chieftains have, according to those who carry the much-ignored torch, sold their musical souls.

What is a tradition? I used to think traditional music sounded exactly the same as it always had, that it was a window into the lives of people long dead. The real story is that traditions are like some sort of complicated telephone game, where, instead of a simple sentence being changed beyond recognition as it passes along the chain of tellers, whole ways of understanding and doing things get bent and shaped by each person who passes them on.

The fact is, an Irish musician magically transported from the year 1850 to our time would probably not recognize the styles of playing done by any so-called traditional musician.

You don't believe me? Try tracing any of the more familiar pop song styles of the last 40 years. From Elvis Presley's "Baby, Let's Play House" to Pete Droge's "If You Don't Love Me" is a long journey, full of twists and turns, dead ends, rediscovery of influences and all manner of personal quirks to make it different. Yet, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, similarities can be noted by any armchair musicologist.

For something like 25 years, the Chieftains stuck pretty close to the interpretation of Irish traditional music that was the norm of their generation. You could argue (and I'd agree with you) that, Boy for Chief, the Boys of the Lough had better musicians, but the stylistic approach was pretty similar. Thanks to their association with major record labels in the U.S., the Chieftains became the better-known group. A few years ago, after signing to RCA, they began releasing a series of albums featuring well-known American and British pop and country musicians, which has made the Chieftains the most famous "traditional" music band in the world.

These collaborative efforts have not been without their flaws - Rickie Lee Jones is no less cloying than on her own albums, and Roger Daltrey couldn't tone down the bellowing of his recent years - but they have been attempts to try something different with the music the band has played for so many years. Maybe the whole thing has been motivated by sheer greed, or maybe it was from a sincere interest in blending musical concepts with those of other cultures. Either way, the Chieftains have made themselves notable as talented, eclectic risk takers.

Their latest effort, "The Long Black Veil," is the least conceptual release of their new career. The album is not tied together by one style, as was "Another Country," which traced Irish and country/Western commonalities, nor by theme, as was "The Bells of Dublin," which devoted itself to the winter holiday season. …

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