Hail to the Chieftains
Irish music icons bring down the house with a night of song and dance
In his introductory comments, Chico Performances director and emcee Dan DeWayne stated what the sold-out crowd already seemed to know: The Chieftains are “absolute icons; you can’t get any more wonderful.”
The legendary, six-time Grammy-winning Irish band churned out reels and jigs and airs all night long, in typical fast-paced Irish pub fashion, as step dancers popped onto the Laxson stage to do their crowd-pleasing thing at select moments. Fiddler/ dancer Jon Pilatzke only had to jump up from his seat to dance alongside his brother Nathan Pilatzke and New York Irish dancer Cara Butler when they appeared stage left. The Pilatzkes and Butler, performing as the Step Crew, unveiled a memorable dance segment that was a thoroughly engaging fusion of Ottawa Valley step dance, Irish traditional dance and tap dance.
The excited audience—which included members of Chico’s own legendary Irish group the Pub Scouts and many of their fans—applauded thunderously during the night for the three Chieftains: Kevin Conneff on bodhran and vocals, Matt Molloy on flute, and founder (and funny guy) Paddy Moloney on uillean pipes and pennywhistle.
Missing from this performance was fiddler Sean Keane, but the “two rippin’ fiddlers” (as head Pub Scout Michael Cannon described them) in Keane’s place—Maureen Fahy, in her sleeveless, blazing-red dress, and French Canadian Jon Pilatzke—more than made up for the absence of Keane. Also joining the Chieftains on stage were the amazing Triona Marshall on harp, and Ryan MacNeil holding it down on keyboard.
Conneff shone on vocals on a number of tunes, including “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore,” a lovely song about an Irishman who had to leave his homeland to travel to America to make his fortune so that he could go back to Ireland with money in his pocket to help his family. Conneff’s brisk version of American folk song “Cotton Eye Joe,” which Moloney playfully referred to as “the national anthem of Texas,” was particularly fun, as evidenced by the crowd clapping along enthusiastically as Butler danced.
Notable was the inclusion of a number of younger musicians and dancers throughout the night. Besides the Pilatzke brothers and Butler, the six-piece all-female Irish musical group Liadan appeared on stage at times to sing and play such endearing songs as “P is for Paddy” and a fairly chipper version of “Shenandoah.” A few members of Liadan also danced, as did a group of brightly-attired, talented young dancers who came up from Patricia Kennelly’s well-known Irish dance company in San Francisco.
Fahy stepped to the fore at one point late in the evening and proceeded to delight the audience by first singing, then playing the hell out of her fiddle, then—pulling one more amazing trick out of her non-existent sleeves—dancing a very endearing little dance, barefoot.
Molloy’s performance on flute of the beautiful slow air, “Easter Snow,” was also most enjoyable. Cannon, who played with flutist Molloy in Ireland in 1997 at Molloy’s eponymous pub in Westport, County Mayo, emphatically referred post-show to Molloy as “the man … the real deal.”
Cannon also made note of the fact that “in all traditional music, especially Irish traditional music, there is a strong connection between the music and dance. The music is there for the dance, the dance is there for the music. There’s a complete bond and a marriage between the music and the dance. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing as to which came first.”
The Chieftains’ performance certainly exemplified Cannon’s point about the close interdependence between Irish music and dance. It was as if the music was brought even more exhilaratingly to life by the fiery energy and obvious pleasure of the fiercely talented dancers. The musicians inspired the dancers, the dancers inspired the musicians, and together they inspired the audience that night to great joy.