A chat with The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney
We're still many months – and a couple of defrostings – away from Irish Fest, but a taste of the late summer tradition is coming to town Friday night. The Chieftains, one of the most legendary names in Irish music, are coming to The Pabst Theater.
Before they hit the stage, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk to Paddy Moloney and ask about their role in the popularity of Irish music, some of their famous collaborators and some words for their recently deceased dear friend and fellow performer Sean Potts.
OnMilwaukee.com: What was it like putting together your last album "Voice of Ages"? Because you worked with a lot of great talent on there, with T-Bone Burnett, Bon Iver and more.
Paddy Moloney: It was terrific. I said to myself, "What do I do for 50 years?" I didn't want to do what we did for "The Long Back Veil," calling on all of our old friends from The Rolling Stones and Sting and all of that. I wanted to go back a generation and even more in some cases. When I played "My Lagan Love" with Lisa Hannigan for T-Bone, he said, "Where do I sign?" (laughs). So he came on board for about five or six of the tracks, and he introduced me to some of these wonderful new contemporary musicians and songwriters.
And of course, I should mention my dear, dear friend – I've known him since my teens – and a founding member of the band, Sean Potts, tin whistle player, passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 85. He had finished touring with the band, but he played on that album. I was so delighted to have the tin whistles together again.
OMC: Did you get a chance to see him before his death?
PM: No, I've been out since the beginning of January. I've been down in Florida most of the time. So I missed him, but he was down in my house about a week before Christmas, though. We had a lovely party.
OMC: Do you have any particular fond memories that come back to you right now?
PM: For Sean, indeed. I always remember the first time we did the Albert Hall in London. We were semi-professional at the time back in 1975, and we had this full house of 4,000 people. No flashing lights and smoke screens or anything like that; just good, solid music, and the crowd just got to their feet and were dancing all around. We came off at the end of the show, and we threw our arms around one another with tears in our eyes. We said, "We made it." And that year, we went full-time professional. That was a great memory from the time of Sean.
Another time I remember, incidentally, was way back in 1959 on a holiday in Galway. We were playing, and I was drinking pineapple juice at that time. I remember being in this place; we went there every night to play. It was a whole show every night there, just a small little pub. We had the greatest times. And one night, a man came in – this big American with glasses – and introduces himself as Ed Sullivan. He says, "I have a television show back home; you guys might like to come on it!"
I hadn't even got a TV myself at the time. I didn't know what was going on outside of traditional Irish music (laughs). So we said, "Don't think so." I'm thinking to myself, "Here's another American showing off," only to find out about 12 years later who he was (laughs). He did manage to get The Beatles on two years later, though.
OMC: Now you guys brought out a bunch of songs that you haven't played in decades for this tour. Why did you want to bring those out now?
PM: You know, just to reflect and go back. It's all great stuff. I mean, this is stuff that won us Grammys – and an Oscar to boot for "Barry Lyndon." The stuff is terrific, and it was great just to turn back a little bit.
But again, we're got plenty of new stuff. We have a piece in honor of Nelson Mandela because in the early years, we were very pro the anti-apartheid movement. He was put in jail, and our president helped to get him out, Mary Robinson. There's actually a documentary coming up in months' time on Nelson Mandela that was made back home. I was asked to write a jig, so I did. His middle name is the "Troublemaker," so I called it "The Troublemaker's Jig."
He was very fond of a group called The Corrs – three beautiful girls who've been huge with lots of hits, and still are huge back home – there's footage of Nelson dancing with them at one of these functions (laughs). So we're going to have a bit of a set dance at the end of his piece, and a group of set dancers are going to come and demonstrate an old style of Irish house dancing. So that's another item that will take place at the show.
OMC: You guys have done so many collaborations over the years with so many legendary performers and musicians. What's your favorite from over your career?
PM: God, it's so difficult. There's so many. Like I could mention a month ago, I was in New York for my daughter – she's an actress – for a function she was putting on. And Sting turned up to give her support. Sting sang that song with us, "Mo Ghile Mear," which is I think the first song on "Long Black Veil." He was super to work with.
But then again, you have that great challenge, the challenge of Van Morrison. That is a challenge, let me tell you, but I still love that guy. To me, he's the best, just from the whole musical and aesthetic excitement. I got him to do "Shenandoah" on the album "Long Journey Home," which is the best version I've ever heard in my life. Just fantastic.
You know, The Stones are always great friends, and Alison Kraus doing that beautiful version of "Molly Ban." We've had so many great friends. When we did the "Down the Old Plank Road" series, it was only meant to be one album, but I got so much material that we had two (laughs). It's just been all of that and still going on. For instance, you've heard of the Von Trapp family? They came to Ireland before Christmas, and the grandchildren asked if I would arrange two songs for their future recordings.
OMC: How does it feel to be basically global ambassadors of Irish music? You guys have brought it to so much of the globe's attention and into the mainstream.
PM: It was a great challenge. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had done great work with the songs and the ballads in the '50s. They had Bob Dylan at their concert to give him a boost – it was the other way around in those days.
I always felt that this great folk art, this great music wants to be heard, and that there's more to it than just "Molly Malone" and "Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?" I felt that this music should be played on all the major stages throughout the world, and that dream, for me, came true.
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