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Chieftains kick off U.S. tour in Northern California

Paddy Moloney
Paddy Moloney

Paddy Moloney has been giving interviews for half a century, and it shows.
When the Chieftains' leader took my call a few years back, he immediately launched into a monologue. Moloney had certain facts he wanted to impart concerning the legendary Celtic group's tour and projects and he wasn't going to leave it up to any journalist to ask about them.
So it was that Moloney all but soliloquized about the centuries-old connection between traditional Irish musicand its Scottish counterpart; talked up the musicians and dancers who were accompanying the Chieftains on that U.S. tour; and even plugged "The Water Horse: Legends of the Deep," a 2007 animated adventure to whose soundtrack the group contributed.
That Moloney delivered all this with loads of Irish wit and charm was the saving grace. That and a realization on both ends of the phone that he had earned a bit of professional indulgence. After all, the Chieftains have done more to bring Celtic music to the world than any other act.
The band kicks off its 2014 U.S. tour with dates February 19 in Davis and February 20 in San Rafael. In addition to Moloney, the group features Matt Molloy (flute), Sean Keane (fiddle) and Kevin Conneff (bodhrán).
The Chieftains’ vaunted musical status is even more impressive when you consider just how difficult the band's first decades were.
"It was a very limited market – there certainly wasn't a career, you couldn't depend on it for a livelihood," Moloney told me in that interview. "We were semiprofessional. In 1970, we were asked by the record company to get drums and guitars and become on of those Celtic-rock things."
Born in Donnycarney, County Dublin, Moloney was drawn to music as a child. By his teen years, he had learned to play the uillean pipes and began performing professionally even as he held down a construction job. After years of experimenting with different musicians and sounds, he founded the Chieftains in 1962.
If Celtic music was virtually unknown to the world, then it was not exactly honored in Ireland either.
"You got a terrible scalding if you were seen with a fiddle on your arm," Moloney said.
Despite the resistance, Moloney continued to explore and perform the traditional music of Ireland. He was able to quit his construction job in 1968 and the Chieftains began making inroads in the American market in the '70s. The group's Stateside popularity soared in the '80s, as the market expanded for roots music and world beat.
"It's kind of like an underground sound gradually become a popular sound," Moloney said.
Looking back, he noted that a key element in group's rise was the 1988 release "Irish Heartbeat." The first of the Chieftains' many collaborative efforts, it paired the group with the Belfast-born Van Morrison.
"We were enjoying a very successful livelihood and a very successful career," Moloney said. "Still, it brought people with a curiosity (about Celtic music). They listened to Van, then they turned on our albums. It turned out huge."
From that initial collaboration came more such projects designed to push the barriers of traditional Celtic music and, in the process, introduce the group and genre to all sorts of new audiences.
The '90s brought significant sales and Grammy Awards for the albums "Long Black Veil" (which included duets with the likes of Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones) and "Tears of Stone" (Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant). In the years since, the group has recorded with the cream of Nashville - Chet Atkins, Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs - for "Down the Old Plank Road" and its sequel.
"We've had our ups and downs. ... It was touch and go," Moloney said, looking back with the satisfaction of a survivor. "I was going to an accountant at one time. Gladly, that passed."

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