Review: The Chieftains at the Kimmel Center

There are some who say the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall is shaped like a giant cello.

An untrained eye would make that kind of mistake. But anyone who attended the Chieftains concert at Philadelphia’s world-class concert hall could tell you: It’s a big Irish fiddle—obviously.

In a stellar Saturday afternoon show, the band managed to turn the city’s premier symphonic concert hall into an intimate Irish house party. Certainly, it had most of the required elements—whoops, foot stomping, sing-alongs and even, at the end, a bit of dancing. Indeed, our photographer Gwyneth MacArthur, in her first visit to the Kimmel, wound up—with a gaggle of other delighted audience members—dancing a kind of “hora” on stage with the show’s rubber-legged dancers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, Cara Butler, and a whole troupe of Shirley Temple-wigged dancers from the Ryan School of Irish Dance. (Shyness was never Gwyneth’s problem.)

The show actually began on a bit of a disconcerting note. On their flight into Philly, the airline lost the band’s luggage—including the uilleann pipes played by Chieftain-in-chief Paddy Moloney. (Something similar happened fairly recently to a treasured banjo owned by Solas leader Seamus Egan, I believe. There are certain things you should just not check in.)

But this is a band of long experience and struggles, and they soldiered on, serving up a couple of hours of brilliant, often breath-taking, Irish music. All of it was clearly rooted in Irish musical tradition, but there were the usual departures, including such tunes as “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” from the Chieftains’ 10th album. Bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs did the vocal honors on the album, but the Chieftains’ bodhran player and singer Kevin Conneff filled in more than ably.

As promised, the Chieftains also dabbled a bit in music from Scotland. Alyth McCormack, from a little island called Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, has a high, clear voice (marred somewhat by intermittent feedback). She dazzled the crowd with a display of that peculiar act of Scottish lyrical tongue-twisting known as mouth music. “You’ll see why they call it that,” she said before she sang. And, yes, we did see.

Introducing McCormack was a piper who played a lovely, haunting version of the standard pipe band tune, “The Rowan Tree.” The Chieftains blended in along the way with Matt Molloy’s flute, Paddy’s chirping tin whistle and Seane Keane’s fiddle. It wasn’t the first or the last time that night that Gwyneth’s eyes misted over.

No Chieftains show is complete without some dancing pyrotechnics from the Pilatzkes. They joined with Cara Butler for one of the most peculiar—and, at the same time, inspired—dance routines you’ll ever see, performed entirely while seated on chairs. Most of us were falling out of our chairs at the end.

Harper Triona Marshall and Irish singer Carmel Conway also joined the show in Philly. Conway performed an achingly beautiful version of the “The Foggy Dew,” and Marshall pretty much set the stage on fire with her version of “Carolan’s Concerto.” Before the concert, Paddy mentioned that it was the best version of the piece he’d ever heard. I wouldn’t argue.

The Chieftains clearly relish playing in the Kimmel—and who could blame them? It’s not really St. Patrick’s Day in Philadelphia until the Chieftains play there, in that lovely place. I wish we didn’t have to wait ‘til next St. Patrick’s Day to hear them there again.

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