By Colleen Taylor
It’s impossible to talk to Paddy Moloney without a big grin on your face. When I called the music legend and Chieftains leader in Ireland earlier this week, he remarked that the sun was shining through his window, and it was all smiles and laughs from there. At one point, laughs morphed into guffaws when he regaled a hilarious tale about poitín, Chicago airport security, and a bottle marked “Holy Water” (I won’t say more than that). Moloney has the incredible, humble ability to make you feel like you’re part of his close-knit circle of friends. This quality not only characterizes the man himself, but his entire music career. The Chieftains aren’t just Paddy Moloney, Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff. Rather, “The Chieftains” are an extensive, international network of musicians and a global family of friends. Their music has never been anything other than audible warmth and all-inclusive joy. You don’t just attend a Chieftains concert—you participate in it. That’s what has made their extraordinary 53-year career so longstanding, so indelible, and that’s what makes American fans like myself overjoyed in anticipation of the band’s traditional U.S. tour this March.
In the excitement leading up to the Chieftains’ tour, Moloney happily reflected on some of the band’s best Stateside memories. When I asked him to pick his most memorable American show, his response was, “I suppose Carnegie Hall, 1976, for the first time, that was something.” It’s hard to imagine Carnegie fazing someone with as big a name as Paddy Moloney. After all, the Chieftains have played all the grandest stages across the globe, even becoming the first band to play on the Great Wall of China. But those pivotal early moments in his career are still with Moloney as vividly as they were then. He remembers his first big show in Symphony Hall in 1974 in Boston as atmospheric and nostalgic: “There was something wonderful about that hall, like a parlor room back home.”
A recent RTE documentary on Paddy, called “Paddy Moloney: Chieftain,” which aired last November, compiled all the Chieftains highlights for him. “Monologue Moloney,” as he’s been dubbed by various interviewers, laughed about how long it took them to record his memoirs. “Three months of me talking down to 90 minutes!” he chuckled. The program aired some visuals Moloney himself had never seen from that perspective before, like video coverage of the band’s first headliner in London in 1975, when they decided to go fulltime professional, or their first “Saturday Night Live” performance in 1978. It’s almost as if, even after 53 years, Moloney himself remains in disbelief at his worldwide fame.
The rest of the world is less astonished. The Chieftains have intense followings in all kinds of cities, from Shanghai to Barcelona. The band recently returned to China for a show last November. Since their first appearance there in 1983, they’ve garnered quite a fandom. When they exited backstage, there were 20 to 30 young people waiting for the band members to sign their bodhrans. This New Year’s Eve, Barcelona celebrated Paddy Moloney with an honorary concert, featuring the piper’s good friend Carlos Nunez. South Africa is no stranger to the Chieftains either. Moloney wrote a special tune in honor of Nelson Mandela himself, who famously loved to dance to the Corrs’ music. He dubbed it “Troublemaker,” which is the translation of Mandela’s middle name.
With globalized anecdotes like these, calling the Chieftains “Celtic music” becomes a misnomer. They are a category all to their own, encompassing everything from rock n’ roll and American country to less mainstream genres like Galician and Breton music. The Chieftains are beloved by the Rolling Stones fan as well as the Planxty fan. The scope of their range seems boundless. Moloney even teamed up with the Von Trapp Grandchildren a couple years ago for a rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” “They love the Chieftains music, God help them,” Moloney said in a very Irish way. I was far less surprised. If you don’t love the Chieftains, you must not love music at all.
At 78, Moloney still knows how to put on a rip-roaring show. Just like his all his endeavors, his plans for the American tour in February and March are ambitious. “Something weird always happens at a Chieftains show,” he said with a grin that I couldn’t see but heard in his voice. He is expecting plenty of surprise guests for his big Town Hall show, and he intends to spontaneously invite friends in the audience up on stage. A few years ago, they had so many local pipe bands attend Town Hall for the backing to “San Patricio,” that they couldn’t fit them all in the building. Moloney hopes for similar over-the-top showings this time. He’s recruiting local pipe bands and Irish dancers for each stop on the trip. The tour is bookended by collaborating symphony orchestras. The Chieftains start off in Tucson with a symphony orchestra and finish off on St. Patrick’s Day with Pittsburgh’s orchestra in three large-scale shows led by Moloney and the city’s Irish orchestra manager.
Don’t miss your chance to see these historic musicians on stage this St. Patrick’s Day season. Keep your eyes peeled for their American tour dates, especially the famous Town Hall gig on March 12. Reflecting on the whole of the Chieftains’ career, Moloney said, “we left our mark, let’s put it that way.” For such a large-scale musician, it strikes me as a very small-scale and humble way to phrase his impact. The rest of us would agree Moloney has left far more than a mark—he’s left an entire, richly ornamented legacy.
Get your tickets at townhall.org.