Wendy Donahue wrote this lovely review.
Ah, summer…that wonderful time of year during which music enthusiasts rejoice at the proliferation of outdoor concerts, multiplying the options for taking in a good show many times over. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for a real gem of a performance one recent gorgeous evening when The Chieftains took the stage at the Scene Pavilion in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
The Chieftains combine a superb musicianship with charm and style that leaves the audience hanging on to their last note, begging for more. In their 42 years of existence they have earned themselves six Grammys, recorded over 40 albums, continue to tour every year. They are widely recognized as some of the best known ambassadors of Irish music.
The Chieftains are Paddy Moloney (uilleann pipes, tin whistle), Matt Molloy (flute), Sean Keane (fiddle), and Kevin Conneff (bodhran, vocals.) Though the members’ average ages are all in the mid-to-late-sixties, they perform with the energy of much younger men, still gallivanting about the globe bringing fans the gift of their music.
We lucked out with the weather that night. The evening was perfect–clear skies with a temperature in the low-70’s and a slight breeze giving way to the mid-60’s by nightfall. The Scene Pavilion is a large, tented outdoor stage right on the bank of the Cuyahoga River, and the Cleveland skyline made a lovely backdrop for the show. The Pavilion floor was about half full with a handful of folks in the stands when the opening act took the stage.
Francis Quinn (fiddle), Tim Benson (Irish Flute), Rich Rosfelder (guitar), and Katie Kilroy (accordion) of the Cleveland Irish Musicians warmed up the crowd with some traditional jigs, reels, and hornpipes, playing to an appreciative audience. People continued to trickle in until the floor was nearly full, but it wasn’t a sellout. There was plenty of room in the stands. I feel sorry for those who at thought to come but didn’t make it. They missed a great show.
After a brief break, the Chieftains took the stage. They launched right into a rollicking traditional set, incorporating a local piper to thunderous applause. Getting right to the heart of things, brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke got up and wowed the audience with their topnotch Ottawa Valley-style step dancing. Paddy introduced the band members and then gave us a solemn, unaccompanied tribute to the late Derek Bell on his pennywhistle that quieted the audience instantly. I’ve no idea how the man coaxes such a lovely sound from the same instrument used as little more than a toy by kids the world over.
Derek Bell, who passed away in October 2002, was a virtuoso harpist, master of the tiompán (a variety of hammered dulcimer), and a member of the Chieftains for 30 years. While he could never be truly replaced, harpist and keyboard player Triona Marshall now tours with the group and fills out the arrangements superbly.
As is their custom, the Chieftains incorporated other artists into their show, including guitar player Clem O’Brien, Dublin vocalist Yvonne McMahon, dancers Cara Butler and Nathan and Jon Pilatzke, and local Irish dancers. Jon Pilatzke also joined in on his fiddle.
The group played a number of songs over the two hours they entertained us. Without a set list, I’d be hard pressed to remember every title, but highlights include “Cotton Eyed Joe,” punctuated by the exuberant dancing of Cara Butler, and an arrangement of “Rocky Road to Dublin” patterned after the version recorded with the Rolling Stones some years ago. Yvonne McMahon’s vocal pieces were lovely, though she did stop the show a couple of measures into “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” to admonish the band, saying “This is the wrong key!” A restart in a slightly lower key, which really allowed Yvonne to belt the song out, resulted in a round of cheers and applause from the audience.
One of my favorites, “Mo Ghile Mear,” was featured about halfway through the show. This was originally recorded with Sting, and Paddy quipped “he was going to be here tonight, but apparently, he missed the boat.” He nodded towards the boats drifting by on the Cuyahoga River, which had occasionally punctuated the performance at inopportune times with their horns, and the audience loved it. As the laughter subsided, the band launched into the tune, with Kevin Conneff doing great justice to the vocals.
Each of the performers onstage had some solo time, with Paddy hilariously miming feigned annoyance at the “long” time that each performer “hogged” the limelight. The dancers took the stage several times, absolutely wowing the audience with each and every display of incredible footwork. After the final tune, the audience gave a standing ovation and continued to applaud until the band returned to the stage for an encore. “Shameful!” Paddy Maloney exclaimed with a smile, “have you all no homes to go to?” For the long and impressive final encore, the Chieftains had a number of guests on stage with them, including everyone who had shared the stage with them over the course of the evening. It was a wonderful performance, and we couldn’t have asked for more.