Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Washington Songlines: World music goes foot-tappin' and STOMPIN' with The Chieftains

[Note: This is a corrected version, as per helpful input from my VOA Colleague Gary Thomas; see "Pre-St. Paddy's Day: Update on The Chieftains".]

To change the tone a bit from my ponderous previous post:

Last night the Chieftains and assorted guests electrified the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House with a full offering of Irish-based revels, leavened by musical allies from Scotland, Canada, Nashville, Long Island (yes, Long Island), and the Washington area itself.

This was the first Gaelic [corrected to Celtic] songfest I've attended since my college days in the early 60's, when the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were all the rage. And after a rich (perhaps too rich in such a short time) musical movable feast centering on Arabic offerings (also at the KenCen) over the past two weeks, I was able to sit back, let my foot tap away, and enjoy--among many other aspects--the brevity of high-energy performances in rapid-fire sequence.

The core members of the Chieftains are at once consummate musicians and engaging showmen/entertainers (an interesting distinction made by my Washington-area colleague Mark Jenkins in his review of Tom Jones' recent local appearance). As commonplace and often bland as "fusion" has become in the realm of world music these days, I have to say that The Chieftains' efforts in that direction last night were dizzyingly successful.

Where to begin? Well, why not at the beginning? A light note was set when the group's founder/godfather Paddy Moloney came out on stage and began rattling off in what I thought at first was (not unusual for my ear) an impenetrable Irish accent, when suddenly he (theatrically, of course), caught himself, "realized" where he was, and slipped from Gaelic [corrected to Irish] into a mercifully midlands "English", most (but not all) of which was understandable during the rest of the evening.

A series of short and diverse pieces followed. Having heard the highland pipes before on numerous occasions, with performers blowing air into the instruments directly through a mouthpipe, I was fascinated last night to see, for the first time in my life, a live performance on the Uilleann pipes, with Paddy Moloney pumping air into the instrument with a bag under his arm. I had always found the sound of this instrument hauntingly beautiful, with its ethereal tremolo on individual notes, and liquid glides between notes (similar to the ornaments--meends--of Indian classical music). My first surprise of the evening was to see how that effect was produced, by an actual fluttering of the fingers on the chanter, or melody-pipe. At various points, Paddy would take to the tinwhistle (or pennywhistle) for equally fluid melodies in the higher octaves.

Joining Paddy as a full-time member of the group were Matt Molloy, playing a transverse wooden flute, which (from what I could tell from memories of my own flute study in my pre-teen years) has open keys, allowing the flautist to create the same microtonal slides and lambent tremolo as the Uilleann pipes; and Kevin Conneff on bodhrán (the Irish frame-drum) and vocals--the latter delivered with bell-like clarity of intonation as well as diction.

Had I not read the program notes ahead of time, I wouldn't have realized from their fiery fiddling that the two violinists were guest artists-- Jon Pilatzke from Canada, and Deanie Richardson from Nashville, also playing twice on mandolin. The first (pleasant) non-musical shock of the evening came when a gangling young man burst from the wings doing a maniacal hoedown/dervish dance to the group's music, only to be joined by the lead fiddler (of similar build--turns out they are brothers, the original dancer being Nathan Pilatzke) in an astonishing display of kick-work, hip-swivel, arm-slash, whirling-body virtuosity that is the closest I've seen to the way ol' Dionysus himself might have celebrated life had he been Gaelic/[Celtic]. And as if these two lads were not enough, at various points in the evening Long-Island born and longtime Chieftains collaborator Cara Butler brought her own distinctive footwork, and at one point, her confident full voice.

Do we have enough music yet? Not nearly. Another guest artists was Triona Marshall on the Irish harp, with a deeply moving rendition (almost time travel in itself) of a movement from the 17th century concerto by the blind harpist Turlough Carolan, often considered Ireland's national composer. Then there was high-voiced Scottish songstress Alyth McCormack, whose engaging contributions to the evening's diversity included samples of port à beul, or Scottish "mouth music" (a genre which in its syllabic playfulness I found at once delightfully similar to, yet different from, the classical Indian tarana.) And guest Nashville guitar master Jeff White's unobtrusive but strongly supportive presence concealed his chops until his own solo turns came. And not to lose sight of the other kind of bagpipes--Scottish--the second half of the program began with a rousing appearance in full regalia (including twirling puffy drumsticks) of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe [and drum] Band.

As my wife observed, exuberance was the propelling mode of the evening. One had perhaps had enough of long, lugubrious modal meditations in recent days at the Arabesque concerts, but here each performer--again, in relatively brief but brilliant offerings--was clearly enjoying the experience, whether instrumentalist, singer, or dancer. And dancers there were throughout the evening in tasteful abundance, including an allegedly surprise appearance by eight lively local lasses from the Washington branch of the Broesler School of Irish Dance, who, while maintaining a beautifully kinetic group symmetry in their step-dancing, kept their arms dutifully at their sides, thank you very much!

As in so many of the recent concerts I've attended, the well-paced ensemble performance alternated with virtuoso solos that allowed the individual artists to demonstrate their specialties. What struck me most about the Chieftains was that while the group's bedrock Irish identity remained joyously intact (to my ears at least, though it's Scots that runs most passionately through my otherwise mongrel-blooded veins), the brief tangential shifts into adjacent idioms were utterly natural and seamless: e.g., Irish to country blues to Irish to Scots to Irish to a smashing (no? then, well, stomping) demonstration by the Pilatzke Brothers and Cara Butler of cannily choreographed seated-side-by-side-on-three-chairs Canadian? footwork.

I suddenly now remember that some years ago I did see Riverdance. But that extravaganza was so relentlessly massive and packaged that it had sunk by its own weight from my memory. The Chieftains are the real thing, at least to this old folkie/fogey--whether playing alone or in one of their globally diverse collaborations (there were several references during the evening to explorations of Mexican music . . . . )

The sponsor of this extraordinary musical offering, the Washington Performing Arts Society, deserves credit for hosting (as Paddy announced appreciatively once he had switched into English in his opening remarks) 24 programs during the last 29 years. At least I think that's what he said . . . .

* * * * * * *

Final note in response to Professor Solomon's comment on my prevous blog entry:

Blogspot unfortunately does not provide for purely audio links, and the direct posting (as opposed to linking) of video always poses risks of copyright infringement. Whenever possible, I provide links to appropriate Websites, many of which include examples of performances by the artist(s). Generally I prefer the Wikipedia entries as initial referents because of their relative straightforwardness of information and graphic presentation. But many of the artists from last night's glorious performance have their own Websites and/or MySpace pages with audio or video clips; various Websites selling CDs (i.e., Amazon.com, CDUniverse.com, Tower.com, etc.) include brief excerpts from tracks of the albums they sell; and YouTube features postings, authorized or otherwise, of all of these performers--for example, the Pilatzke Brothers' and Cara Butler's memorable and unique Ottowa Valley Chair Dance. After more than four decades of a Gaelic/Celtic lacuna in my listening habits, I know where I'll be spending many future insomniac hours. . . .


M.B.H. said...

Brian, you are good. It was as if I was there.

Brian Q. Silver said...

Thanks for your kind words. It was a BLAST to be there!