Review: The Chieftains’ ‘Voice of Ages’

The Chieftains' album 'Voice of Ages'

The Chieftains' album 'Voice of Ages'By Alex Wood

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s great folk music band, The Chieftains. Today only Paddy Moloney remains of the original Chieftains but the tradition marches on, changes but remains true to itself. The new album, Voice of Ages, fulfils that wonderful promise of merging tradition and modernity and strengthening the traditional by that very merge.

It’s an intriguing year, 2012, the 50th anniversary of The Chieftains, of Bob Dylan’s first album and of the formation of The Rolling Stones. No sign of the Stones on this album but of course The Chieftains have collaborated in the past with Jagger when they jointly made a moving version of Long Black Veil. Dylan however, though not in person, makes his contribution to the new album.

Paddy Moloney, the sole original Chieftain still performing in the line-up, and T Bone Burnett have produced this album which continues from other albums (The Long Black Veil, Tears Of Stone) on which The Chieftains have cooperated with countless musicians from a range of genres. It covers a huge swathe of The Chieftains’ musical experience.

The Lark in the Air and The Frost Is All Over, both with the Punch Brothers, make abundantly plain that the magic remains as bright as ever whether on pure instrumental pieces or on accompanying traditional Irish songs.

American Indie band Low Anthem team up with the Chieftains to produce an understated rendering of School Days Over, Ewan McColl’s heartfelt tribute to generations of coal-miners. Dylan’s assertive and declamatory anthem, When The Ship Comes In, sung half a century ago in New York by Dylan with Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, and always open as a tune to an Irish imprint, is reproduced with gusto by American folk rock band, The Decemberists and The Chieftains.

As ever The Chieftains go well beyond the riotous and rebellious. Come All Ye Fair Tender And Ladies, a traditional Appalachian ballad warning young women of the false and treacherous nature of men, rings true through the ages but, recorded as it has been by countless greats, Maybelle Carter, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, represents a major challenge. The Chieftains’ collaboration with American super country group, Pistol Annies, however is gentle, heart-breaking and rivals the great versions of the past.

Perhaps the finest track is the most international of all with Irish, American, Scottish and Italian elements as the The Chieftains accompany a unique rendering by Paolo Nutini of the plaintive Hard Times Come Again No More. (One error on the too-brief sleeve notes is to describe this as ‘Traditional’. It was written in 1845 by American composer, Stephen Foster, but has undoubtedly entered the folk tradition.) Nutini’s Scots accent shines through his singing which captures that almost archetypally American exposition of life as a vale of tears. Unlike much of that tradition however, Hard Times poses neither this side of the grave nor the other any messianic resolution. Yet the hope for something better, the weary but insistent optimism, is captured sensitively by Nutini. As Nutini fades out The Limerick City Pipe Band fades in and belts out the Hard Times melody: inspired arrangement! It’s a song which has been produced by countless artists in the past, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Bruce Springsteen among others. This version is at least as good as any.

If there’s a rival for the best track, it has to be Pretty Little Girl by The Chieftains and African American old time string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. This robust, totally transatlantic piece, is not only a wonderful inducement to heel-tapping celebration, but a tribute to the versatility of The Chieftains. Their easy entry to that different musical world is a measure of their technical skill and cultural breadth.

What The Chieftains have achieved again with this album is to prove categorically that being firmly and securely rooted in one’s own culture is no barrier to reaching out to others. Indeed it is a wonderful spring-board to an inclusive and internationalist musical ethos. Equally, they epitomise the truth that tradition is not the enemy of modernism, but the base on which it rests.

Weaknesses? It might seem a contradiction but the Lisa Hannigan version of My Lagan Love is a touch too dirge-like even for that anthem to heart-break and misery. On the other hand The Secret Sisters’ version of Peggy Gordon (With that title it should have been Scottish, shouldn’t it?) tends a trifle to the jaunty. The brevity of the sleeve notes is disappointing. Beyond that this is a bravura performance by one of the enduring acts in the folk and world music traditions. Their concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh on 16 and 17 June will be sell-outs.