By Earle Hitchner
WATER FROM THE WELL, by the Chieftains. RCA Victor 09026-63637-2.
The Chieftains’ first recording of the millennium is a refreshing return to the rigorously played hard-core traditional music of their founding in 1962. The band’s guests this time out are not pop stars Mick Jagger, Sting, and Natalie Merchant but fellow trad stalwarts Altan, Séamus Begley, and Peter Horan. "Water From the Well" is a musical travelogue of Ireland blissfully free of any touristy slant. The Chieftains have soaked up and recorded the music where it is found, in places like Ennistymon, Westport, Ballyfin, Ardara, Dingle, and Glenariffe.
The live tracks are, not surprisingly, the most exhilarating. Hearing the Chieftains perform with four members of the celebrated Kilfenora Céilí Band, including fiddler Tommy Peoples, at the parochial hall in Kilfenora, Co. Clare, is an outright thrill. Moving across the middle of the country to Sheeran’s Pub in Coolrain Co. Laois, the band links up with accordionist Dave Munnelly and the Ballyfin Set Dancers for a bracing set of polkas. And the medley of "Fred Finn’s/Castle Kelly/The Red-Haired Lass" reels that the Chieftains play with Gary Hastings and Peter Horan on flutes, Cora Smyth on fiddle, the Bumblebees’ Laoise Kelly on harp, and Beginish’s Noel O’Grady on bouzouki makes for some truly inspired live music in the Westport, Co. Mayo, pub owned by the band’s flutist, Matt Molloy.
Another instrumental track to savor is "The Donegal Set" blending the trad talents of the Chieftains and Altan. Recorded in Ardara close on the wedding heels of Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne, the track crackles with energy, particularly during a passage featuring just fiddles.
Three of the album’s five songs are sung by Kevin Conneff, whose deft, unaccompanied vocal on "May Morning Dew" resonates with the close acoustics of the Hollywood Heritage Centre in Wicklow. The remaining two songs, "An Poc Ar Buile" and "Casadh An tSúgáin," are sung, respectively, by three Kerry vocalists (Séamus Begley, Dáithí Ó Sé, Laurence Courtney) and Danú’s lead vocalist, Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, from the Waterford Gaeltacht.
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The injection of these other master trad musicians is just the "outside" tonic to make "Water From the Well" one of the most enjoyable albums by the Chieftains in recent years. "You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry," goes the old Appalachian saw. As the band proves on this excellent, traditional-qua-traditional recording, there’s still plenty to draw from.