There are many things the Irish are famous for, not least knowing how to throw a party. From births, marriages and deaths to St Patrick’s Day, rarely a memorable day goes by without an excuse to get together and celebrate. So what better excuse to bring out the fiddle, bodhran and uilleann pipes than the 50th anniversary of some of the Emerald Isle’s most notorious sons?
The Chieftains have fiddled and piped their way through 42 albums and around the world over five decades, exporting traditional Irish music to as diverse an audience as the Great Wall of China, Pope John Paul II (with a million strong crowd) and the Capitol Building in Washington DC at the invitation of Ted Kennedy.
Voice Of Ages is, to all intents and purposes, The Chieftains’ birthday party in recorded form. They have invited their friends, a heady mix of the contemporary (Bon Iver , The Decemberists, The Low Anthem), country (The Civil Wars, Punch Brothers, Pistol Annies) and celtic folk (Imelda May, Paulo Nutini, Lisa Hanningan) and mixed together cover versions, original tracks and some out of the ordinary collaborations.
None of these guests detract from The Chieftains’ trademark sound. Imelda May might be old enough to be one of the band members’ daughters, but her cameo on opening track Carolina Rua is as traditional as it comes with fiddles and tin whistles aplenty. Likewise, Lily Love, featuring and written by Nashville’s The Civil Wars, is a ballad gently strummed on an acoustic guitar. Lead Chieftain Paddy Moloney said he could “hear the strains of irish-ness in it” the first time he heard it – and he should know.
Far more interesting are the collaborations with more contemporary artists. Down In The Willow Garden, with Bon Iver, could have been on one of Justin Vernon’s own albums, if you didn’t know it was a traditional 19th Century ballad about a man about to be hanged for murdering his lover. It’s pretty macabre stuff, but difficult not to love.
Likewise, it might be argued that Paulo Nutini might not know much about tough times, but his vocals catch perfectly to Hard Times Come Again No More, an American civil war song about hardship that has resonated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and Mary J Blige. And WhenTthe Ship Comes In (with The Decemberists) is everything that’s good about folk music – a ballad originally by Bob Dylan and a favourite cover of The Pogues, it’s a tale about fighting back against ‘the man’, rousing, vital and with decades of emotion behind it.
It would be impossible to review Voice Of Ages without mentioning The Chieftains In Orbit, which is literally out of this world. NASA astronaut Cady Coleman took some of the band’s instruments up to the International Space Station to make a recording for the album. Not every band can say they have recorded from space.
Voice Of Ages is a celebration of a prolific band whose career deserves the accolades of the company they keep 50 years on. Perhaps purists will criticise it for a lack of originality, and indeed many of the tracks are covers. But if its purpose is to celebrate the traditional Irish music that The Chieftains have played for half a century, note their influence and even open them up to new audiences, it does exactly that. Every good party needs a good soundtrack. It’s no surprise that, after all these years, The Chieftains have come prepared for theirs.