Paddy Moloney and the Chieftans grace the FAC

By Kate MacDonald

(Courtesy www.umass.edu/fac)

Grammy-winning Irish band The Chieftains along with their leader Paddy Moloney came to the Fine Arts Center Wednesday night. They began playing their traditional tunes after the audience was offered the customary Irish Guinness in the lobby.

The audience filed into the FAC, nearly filling every seat, even the balcony rows. Though most of the onlookers seemed to be of a mature age, there were quite a few college kids and even multiple young children in attendance. They were all there to have a good time, and Moloney and The Chieftains delivered.

After a FAC worker inspired raucous cheers from the crowd when she mentioned the importance of the band coming to play in March, exactly a week before St. Patrick’s Day, the seven musicians took the stage. Though the band is usually comprised of four members, fiddler Sean Keane is not performing on this tour, choosing instead to spend time with his family.

The lights went down as the drone of the uilleann pipes, commonly called the Irish bagpipes, echoed off of the venue walls, ushering in the first of many Irish jigs. The soft, lilting tone began to pick up, keeping with the mostly fast-paced theme of the evening. Hoots and yelps came from various Chieftains as they began really feeling the music.

To the delight of many concertgoers, the first song, along with most of the others, also included a bit of visual entertainment in the form of Irish step dancers. Brothers Nathan and Jon Pilatzke along with Cara Butler danced in unison during many of the songs. During a solo song, Jon, a fiddler playing with the band, managed to dance a jig while seated and playing his fiddle. Nathan and Butler joined on chairs, creating their own style, even tapping up against the chair’s legs. This was an obvious crowd pleaser, and elicited the loudest audience response of the evening, with a woman in the crowd taken aback, saying, “oh wow.”

The brothers Pilatzke danced together on a number of jigs, as well. Their merriment was obvious; even while dancing they exchanged grins. This prompted many laughs and cheers, and one viewer shouted “Yeah Canada,” an ode to their homeland. Jon seemed to get a laugh out of this, and took the time to make a comment about the recent Olympics, quipping to American fans, “Sorry about that hockey game, there.”

Other special guests on the evening included Nashville natives Deanie Richardson and Jeff White, who played fiddle and guitar, respectively. They performed in every song, but had two particular solos together, a bluegrass waltz Richardson announced she learned from her grandfather, and a jig. One may not normally think of bluegrass as pretty, but the way Richardson played it, it sure was.

Also on stage was Triona Marshall on harp and keyboard. She served to add an ethereal air to many of the tunes, as did the Stephen P. Driscoll Memorial Pipe Band, who played drums and bagpipes, adding beautiful melodies to the songs.

The standout of the night, besides The Chieftains themselves, was Scottish singer Alyth McCormack. She first exhibited her deep, haunting voice in “Lullaby for the Dead,” but really shined in “The Foggy Dew,” about the British presence in Ireland, which Moloney brushed off as “a little trouble with the neighbors.” She was also able to bring a Scottish style of music into the show, performing a few pieces in the form of “Scottish mouth music.” In this style, she sung the words in Scots-Gaelic, but altered her voice to sound like rhythms and instruments while singing, lending a unique and almost unnatural sound to the song.

The theme of blending different types of music with typical Irish sounds was prevalent. The Chieftains performed an Irish “remix” of “Cotton Eye Joe,” which Moloney deemed “the national anthem of Texas.”

Many of their songs had Spanish and Mexican flavors to them, and came from the albums “Santiago” and “San Patricio,” the latter of which is just days old. “San Patricio” is primarily filled with songs about an Irish battalion which fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War, as they could not kill fellow Catholics. The group and guests performed “Guadalupe” and “The Sands of Mexico” with Mexican and Spanish flair, but always ending in an Irish reel.

By the end of their set, the audience was still rapt with attention. Even some of the ushers had taken seats in the hall to watch the band, who were accompanied by a team of young, Amherst-based Irish step dancers. After each of the band members played their own solo tunes (complete with audience foot stomping in place of percussion), a jig hailing from Celtic France ended the night on a high note, prompting many audience members to stand and dance.

As the viewers milled out, many spoke about the fast-flying feet of the dancers and hands of the fiddlers, all moving so fast they seemed to be blurs. Others spoke of interest in buying their newest album. One woman asked, “Wasn’t that moving?” It was.

Forget the luck of the Irish, on Wednesday night at the FAC, Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains operated on pure talent.

 Kate MacDonald can be reached at [email protected]