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A chat with The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney about The Celtic Sessions

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In the world of Irish music, there is no bigger name than The Chieftains. For 52 years they have carried the standard for traditional Irish music and expanded what that means by collaborating with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Pavarotti.

Now The Chieftains and guitarist Ry Cooder, who collaborated on 2010's "San Patricio" album, will take over the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, NY on July 7-11, for The Celtic Sessions, an intimate and immersive series of concerts and workshops that will offer unparalleled access to The Chieftains and their guests over the course of the week.

We spoke with Chieftains founding member Paddy Moloney from his home in Dublin on December 19. In part one of this two part interview, Moloney will talk about what fans can expect at The Celtic Sessions. In part two, he will talk about the band's 52 year career and legacy of collaboration.

Mr. Moloney, I hope the day finds you well.

Yes, it's the Christmas season and everyone's home. This is a rather unique time with everyone together for the whole week. I hope we won't turn into the fighting Irish by the end of it! On one of the albums we have a song from Elvis Costello and myself called “The St. Steven's Day Murders.” It isn't as if there was any murder, but it all goes a little mad after the Christmas season! -laugh-

Can you tell me about your Celtic Sessions going on July 7-11?

It's going to be full the whole week! We'll get to know the guests who will be coming and I'm sure there will be musicians among them and hopefully they'll bring their instruments! One of the things we love to do at the end of all our concerts, we have the finale which is a round robin thing. And we invite local musicians on the stage, much to the fear and annoyance of the promoters because of the insurance and such, but we've done it for the last 30-40 years. We did it once in Atlanta and we had 36 musicians join us up on stage, they all just piled in! We did this link tune, a round robin thing “Did You Ever Go Courtin' Uncle Joe”, it's an old reel but when it got to America, it became “Did You Ever Go Courtin' Uncle Joe.”

So have a lot of guests who are frequent collaborators with The Chieftains.

Yeah, we've got The Chieftains anyway. There's Matt Molloy, who is considered one of greatest traditional Irish flute players in the world and no doubt he is. He owns a pub in Westport, which makes him a very popular guy, let me tell you! Matt will be talking and telling his stories and explaining about the wooden flutes he has. One of the flutes he has dates back to 1861. I don't know if he's bringing that one or not. He also has a public competition for up and coming flute players, and he commissions a flute maker and presents it to the player who shows the most interest.

That's really cool!

It's something I've done myself with the tin whistle. The school my son teaches at in Dublin that has some underprivileged children who couldn't afford tin whistles. So then I sent them 60 tin whistles and I believe they are now going to be playing in the Christmas concert this year so that's wonderful!

Then there's Kevin Conneff, who sort of came to Irish music late himself. He was a jazz player, Frank Sinatra and the like. But several years ago he went to one of those flash shows, a festival you know, and he just went to play with some of the players and just fell in love with the Irish music he played. He plays the bodhran, he's the percussion player in the band. So he'll be able to talk about the different kinds of bodhrans and the different sounds. You'll found some form of bodhran or hand played instrument of the sort everywhere.

We also have John and Nathan Pilatzke. They're Canadian and I first heard them, someone said you should check these guys out after a show in Toronto. And they were in the back room of this pub and doing this extraordinary dancing. I'd never seen. It's like tap with Irish style and it's all to Irish music. They give classes and have a group called Step Crew that they work with when they aren't with The Chieftains. Extraordinary dancing, not to far from our old style of Irish dancing. John, it was never intended, but was also an amazing fiddle player so he started playing all our music and picked up on the stories.

While we're on the fiddle, one of the people we've invited we met at a concert in Nashville, Deanie Richardson. She's a bluegrass fiddler who plays with Patty Loveless. She started playing bluegrass but also grew up playing Irish music in her home. Her mix of bluegrass music style and Irish music is just terrific and blends perfectly with The Chieftains when we're on stage.

Then there's Jeff White. He's Vince Gill's bandmaster. He's been playing on and off with us for the last 10 years as well.

And we have a lovely, beautiful singer from the Island of Lewis in Scotland. And on the Island of Lewis, they still speak Scotch Gaelic. And she sings these songs in Gaelic and in English as well. Her version of Carrickfergus, one we did with Van Morrison as well, she sings that so beautifully. That's the band, I think. All of that weaved together.

You also have Ry Cooder.

Of course, with our association with Ry Cooder that we've had for so many years. He'll be doing some of his own things during the week as well as performing with us. He and I will be getting together. We're trying out a new song which we haven't done together. It's an old Irish song that he loves very much called “Kelly, The Boy From Killane”, it's an old rebel song. Ry loves that song, so we're going to do that as well, for the first time. There'll be lots of little surprised. That won't be the only one!

Ry will also be talking about the “San Patricio” album that we collaborated with together. He wrote a special song “The Sands of Mexico.” It's all to do with the Mexican War of 1847 and the Irish connection. And of course, he'll be joining us for the big concert at the end as well. We'll probably do two sets. Each night, we'll do a set, probably a 90 minute set.

How did you guys settle on Saratoga Springs, NY for The Celtic Sessions?

I didn't know anything about the Gideon Putnam Resort at all, but it had been done with other artists and other sessions. But they approached us, you know, and they're people who love the work we do and the collaborations we've done with bands like The Decemberists and Bon Iver and the like. I remember doing a session on Hunter Mountain, this would have been 21 years ago or something. There's an Irish fest up there. It was just brilliant. We gave two or three concerts over the weekend and then took a week holiday and brought all our families. And I think that's going to happen again. I have a grandson who is a great musician. He's a budding musician, put it that way. And I'm going to encourage him to come along.

But Saratoga was nice because it's close to everywhere. I think it won't be too far for people to travel to. I have no idea who all may show up. I just know I'll be prepared! They have a lot of fun shows and workshops for us to do over the weekend.

You also have workshops scheduled. Can you tell more about that?

There's so much to show and so much to talk about. Show the instruments, demonstrate the instruments. Maybe the workshops, we might pair in twos and I might go with the harp, which I've done often. And Triona Marshall, who is an amazing harp player and has been with The Chieftains for 12 years now, will lead that. She replaced Derek Bell, who passed away. I used call him Ding Dong Bell! He was a great harper and he was with us for 32 years. But Triona is a stunning harp player and she's a must! For the workshops, maybe her and I will get together but she'll probably do her own thing as well.

With the fiddle, I'm sure John Pilatzke will talk about the fiddle and demonstrate the different styles. Deanie will talk about her life and her beginnings as a bluegrass player with her father. She's one of the best and has been nominated as one of the best bluegrass players. Jeff White, he has so much to talk about, so much history as well. We'll probably break up into twos and threes to do these. I think Ry and myself will get together on one. It should be interesting breaking up what would normally be the full lineup of The Chieftains into different parts.

I'm going to tell a little of the history of the band, and a little about myself. I'll speak about how I started with the tin whistle and the pipes. I'll explain the pipes, the Uilleann Pipes, the elbow pipes. Uilleann is elbow. How they came about hundreds of years ago. It's unlike the bagpipes, which we gave to the Scots They haven't gotten the joke yet! -laugh- I shouldn't say that, especially in front of the Pilatzkes. Or Alyth! She's going to kill me.

But it can be played with orchestras. We do that a lot. This year we've done 18 shows with symphony orchestras. We've covered so much... It's been a massive musical journey over 52 years. So we've got a lot to talk about and a lot to play for people.

And of course, there's the last evening. I'd encourage everyone to join us on the last evening. It's something I want to plan. I don't know what the stage setup is yet but it'll be great to get everyone playing 2-3 reels together at the end. We just did that at the Irish World Music Center in Limerick. At the end, we had 90 students all playing with us for the finale. It was just a magical sound as you can imagine!

Anything else going on during the week that you'd like to talk about?

For that particular week, we're going to encourage, after we do our big of spoofing, to answer questions. It's one of the things I love most. Questions and answers to me are very important for people. Just giving talks, playing a tune and this is the tune it came from. Maybe talk about Barry Lyndon, the Stanley Kubrick film, which we just loved. Everyone asks us about Stanley Kubrick because they thought he was crazy and he was! Same as meself! But he was a lovely man.

Check back for Part 2 of the interview where Paddy Moloney will talk about The Chieftains legacy and their approach to collaboration.


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