It was a stripped-down version of the Chieftains playing in Verizon Hall for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day concert—they were missing fiddler Sean Keane, said to be averse to making long flights at this stage of his career. Canadian fiddler Jon Pilatzke stepped in to fill the breach and—with help from Nashville bluegrass fiddler Deanie Richardson, singer/guitarist Jeff White and harper Triona Marshall—the Chieftains had no problem dazzling a Philadelphia audience once again.
Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney probably has lost count of the number of St. Patrick’s Day concerts the band has played in Philadelphia, but it’s enough so that a Chieftains concert has become an essential and expected part of the annual Delaware Valley celebrations.
If you saw last year’s Kimmel Center concert, this year’s version was virtually a carbon copy of last year’s. If anyone noticed, they didn’t seem to mind. By this point, the Chieftains have their act down to a science. The band played selections highlighting the various stages of their career, from the traditional jigs and reels to tunes from “Down the Old Plank Road,” one of their forays into American bluegrass and country.
But the Chieftains always have a “next” project going, and they offered a preview. The next recording heads down Mexico way for a musical commemoration of the San Patricios, a band of Irishmen who fought on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American war. “They were shooting Catholics down there in Mexico,” said Moloney in an unusually succinct summary of the Irish volunteers’ involvement, “and they didn’t like that.”
For this selection, the Chieftains were joined on stage by a group of pipers and drummers from City of Washington Pipe Band, one of just three grade 1 competition pipe bands in the United States. Together they played a “March to the Battle,” filling Verizon Hall with the droning sound of pipes, leading into a stirring lament, featuring Moloney on uilleann pipes.
Of course, traditional Irish is what this St. Patrick’s crowd came for, and the Chieftains were only to happy to oblige. Just because a Chieftains performance has become a somewhat predictable commodity doesn’t overshadow the fact that they’re still masters of their art. They’ve been at it for 45 years, but they easily match the energy of much younger bands.
Joining Moloney, flutist Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff, the Chieftains’ singer and bodhran player, was Scottish singer Alyth McCormack, who delivered a memorable version of “The Foggy Dew.”
As is the custom with Chieftains shows, dance also figured prominently, with frenetic performances by the Jon Pilatzke and brother Nathan, and Cara Butler. The highlight of their performance was a crazy legs little dance featuring all three seated in chairs.
Coming to the stage late in the show were members of the Ryan-Kilcoyne School of Irish Dance.
A standing O was also predictable—and richly deserved.