BY GWEN OREL
On a distant planet, somewhere, someone may be listening to the the uillean (pronounced “illin”) pipes, accompanied by the insistent sound of the goat-skin drum the bodhrán (“bahran”), and believe it to be the music of Earth.
Astronauts Cady Coleman and Commander Chris Hadfield have played the music of The Chieftains in space.
To those of us on Earth, the sound of The Chieftains, a band that turns 55 this year, is the sound of Irish music.
It’s a bit longer than that, really, according to bandleader and piper Paddy Moloney, 78. He says they began playing together in the late 1950s. The Chieftains have won six Grammy awards, an Academy award for their contribution to the 1975 film “Barry Lyndon,” and performed with a wide variety of artists, including Luciano Pavarotti, Mick Jagger, Lyle Lovett, Van Morrison and Rosanne Cash.
On Sunday, March 5, The Chieftains will play the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, accompanied by special guests Cape Breton Island fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy, among others.
“The first time I played [at NJPAC], I couldn’t believe it. It had that warmth. It was terrific. We always come up with a few surprises to make it different from the previous time,” said Moloney, from his home in Ireland.
One of the new offerings this year will be a short film clip at the beginning of the concert, which provides a retrospective of the band’s 55-year history.
“It goes back to 1962. Would you believe it,” Moloney said with a laugh. “There are a few clips from “Saturday Night Live,” that we did in 1978, and from our first big concert, at the Albert Hall in 1975. That was the concert when we decided, ‘It’s time to pull up the stakes and go for it full time.’” There are even shots of Moloney wearing feathers — he was made an honorary chief of the Choctaw Indians. “You’re not supposed to laugh, but you will of course,” he said.
Before 1975, all of the band had day jobs. Moloney was running Claddagh Records, with the late John Montague, a poet who gave The Chieftains their name, from his 1964 book, “Death of a Chieftain.” Montague died shortly before Christmas 2016, said Moloney, who played at the funeral. Before the big “shed” concert, as the band came to name the amphitheater events, Moloney said he was “heading towards trying to be an accountant. I was pushing a pen for 10 years in my job in Dublin.”
But then, he said, the music began to take over and “I realized I have another talent there. It just took off. Later that year Stanley Kubrick approached us about doing ‘Barry Lyndon.’ We were lucky. We got a page in Time magazine. John Peel in the BBC kept playing The Chieftains. We just built it up from there.” Fonzie became a fan, Moloney said. Bob Dylan is a fan too.
Moloney remembers playing at New York’s Irish Arts Center in 1972: “John Lennon and Yoko Ono were at the concert. I could see them skipping out before the last number to get away.”
“Fifty-five years, where has it gone? I don’t know. It’s been a wonderful journey, and it keeps going.”
The band has made 52 albums.
At the NJPAC concert, The Chieftains will perform with John and Nathan Pilatzke, Ottawa Valley Step Dancers. Unlike traditional Irish dancing, Ottawa Valley Step Dancing uses swinging arms and a fluid body position. The brothers have performed with the band for 13 or 14 years, Moloney said. “John is a master fiddle player himself.
A fiddler from County Clare, Tara Breehan, will also perform with the band, and not just on fiddle: “I got to hear that she played saxophone. I said, ‘You’re not going on the tour unless you play,’” said Moloney with a laugh. Breehan will play reels and jigs on the sax.
“It’s unbelievable. She brings the house down.”
Scottish singer Alyth McCormick will sing a version of “Foggy Dew,” and also perform a bit of the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
The band will also play tribute to the late Nelson Mandela, who was “a great lover of The Chieftains,” Moloney said. Since Mandela was known as “the troublemaker,” Moloney has titled his original jig for Mandela “The Troublemaker’s Jig.”
Cape Breton Island fiddler Natalie MacMaster, who dances when she plays, will perform with the band too. “She’s a darling,” Moloney said. A local pipe band will play: “At the end of the concert there will be 160 people onstage.”
After 55 years, a musician could be forgiven for playing the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers.
Paddy Moloney isn’t interested in that.
Concertgoers will also have a chance to hear his new piece “Fionn,” named for his grandson, born six years ago. “I finally finished it,” said the piper. “His father’s a rocket scientist, believe it or not. He graduated from MIT in Boston.”
Moloney knows he could retire, but even when he broke his ankle during a tour last year and everyone told him to go home, he said “No, we have to finish because we’re playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I’m not going to miss it.” Physically, things can happen, but “mentally and musically I can sit down and play music as good as it ever was.”
And he’s working on music to accompany his daughter and New York actress Aedin Moloney’s reading of the “Molly Bloom” sequence of “Ulysses” to be ready for Bloomsday in June.
Some of the fans at NJPAC have been with the band from the beginning: people often show up with vinyl albums for him to sign, Moloney said. A documentary about the band’s 55 years will be shown on PBS on March 23.
His enthusiasm keeps him coming up with ideas for his shows. “I couldn’t believe that this could happen,” he said. The concerts spark his enthusiasm, which leads to more music, which leads to more concerts: “I’ve just got the buzz.”
The Chieftains with special guests Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy
Sunday, March 5, 3 p.m. at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall, One Center St., Newark
Visit www.njpac.org or call 888-go-njpac for tickets.