With their new album Voice of Ages, the Chieftains celebrate their 50th anniversary as the archetypal Irish folk band. For those that don’t know, the Chieftains first emerged in the early sixties, to further the work that its founder member Paddy Moloney had begun with his first band Ceoltoiri Chualann. Since their early successes they have been solid, reliable purveyors of utterly convincing Irish folk.
Joining them for their anniversary celebration are an assortment of eclectic roots groups, indie bands, folk progeny, and one astronaut (yes, you read that correctly).
The band waste no time getting started. The opening track, a version of Carolina Rua, is delivered both smoothly and passionately by singer Imelda May over the fluttering pipes and strings that are so characteristic of the Chieftains. There is no dramatic pause, no building of tension. Before you have a chance to ponder the weight of fifty years of music they have already begun playing. After Imelda gets through the song, the band play it again as a reel, almost as if to say “Oh yes! And we’re here too.”
On Come All Ye Tender Ladies, the Chieftain sound adapts beautifully to the lazy southern country music of Pistol Annies, and the next track, a collaboration with the fantastic old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, absolutely bursts with energy and exuberance.
The Chieftains manage to foster an air of authenticity around Bon Iver and the Decemberists, the two groups who need it most.
Unfortunately, their gorgeous playing isn’t quite enough to counteract Bon Iver’s self-consciousness. Their singing seems less about expression and more about drawing attention to how studiedly earnest and tender it’s trying to sound. In contrast the Decemberists track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In, is a total success and is one of the stand-outs. The two bands compliment one another well, and the song is blessed with a rhythmic pulse that trumps anything else from the album.
The most eclectic collaborator on the album is surely NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, who contributes a pipe solo direct from the International Space Station, although the fact that the music was recorded in space is perhaps more interesting than the solo itself.
Interestingly the best track on the album is the one that is simply the Chieftains playing without any guests. Modestly titled The Chieftains Reunion, it’s an eleven minute folk jam that takes place right in that Holy Grail area where the enjoyment of the players and the enjoyment of the listener become impossible to separate. It’s a perfect concentration of the spirit of the album into a single piece.
That spirit is generosity. It’s this generosity, this selflessness that allows their collaborators to take centre stage. Unlike some of their guests, they are capable of playing without a trace of ego. And that is exactly what makes it stand out. It seems odd that the band could voluntarily take a back-seat to a whole range of different talents, and yet still come out as the most striking feature of the album. But it’s actually not strange at all. This is the stuff of good folk music and of good music in general.