The Chieftains

A national treasure brings the Waterfront Hall to its feet, writes Lee Henry

Ireland’s official Musical Ambassadors, The Chieftains opened the 2007 Belfast Festival with an outstanding evening of traditional Irish and American music in the Waterfront Hall, with a line-up including founder member and front man Paddy Moloney on uilleann pipes and tin whistle, Matt Molloy on flute, Sean Keane on fiddle and special guest Michael O’Suilleabhain Junior on bodhran.

The night was broken up into two parts, the first being an intimate performance from the band themselves and their crew of special guests. From the opening notes of ‘Brian Boru’s March’ the audience were fixated. Filling in for his father on bodhran, O’Suilleabhain showed that he also has a wonderful singing voice with an a capella version of an Irish American Civil War song, giving voice to the ill-fated Irish immigrant meeting death and destruction in a far-off land. You could hear a pin drop - chilling.

The band then launched into a high tempo instrumental medley of Irish and American classics, including culchie favourite ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’, before harpist Triona Marshall and New York singer Cara Conway tugged on the heartstrings with a version of ‘The Foggy Dew’.

If the first half of the show had the audience frozen in awe, the second had feet stamping and hands clapping in a matter of seconds. With the Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Choir now in place, BBC presenter Ralph McLean welcomed Radio Ulster listeners, and we were off once again.

Conductor David Brophy had his work cut out keeping the Ulster Orchestra in check with The Chieftains playing behind him - without sheet music and at their own pace - but he managed to pull it off with characteristic good humour.

Unlike their obvious discomfort at playing with rock and pop artists Duke Special and Foy Vance at this year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival opening concert, and despite the fact that the Chieftains maintained their anti-purist leanings with a divergence into The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, the Ulster Orchestra themselves had a whale of a time, catching eyes and flashing smiles left, right and centre. Moloney could sense their passion. ‘We’ve played that song with orchestras all over the world,’ he said after a rather huge performance of 'Galician Overture', ‘but that was the best I’ve ever heard it.’

Moloney was all quips and jokes between songs, adding as an aside that The Chieftains, six-time Grammy award winners, had now been together 46 years. The man knows how to work an audience, but it was his virtuoso playing – and that goes for each member of the band – that really got the crowd going. Tearing through ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘The Night Larry Was Stretched’, The Chieftains showed that Irish music can be as exciting and inclusive in 2007 as it has ever been.

As if to illustrate this point beyond any doubt, during the encore the Ulster Youth Choir and Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band joined each individual player with solos of their own, mixing styles and genres as part of one, elongated Irish jig.

With each Chieftain indulging in 24-bar solos – much to the faux-chagrin of leader Moloney – the audience was finally brought to its feet by Canadian dancers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, hand-in-hand and accompanied by a segment of the Youth Choir, who proceeded to prompt some out of their seats for a rudimentary céilí around the entire hall. Elderly women and young men joined in with gusto, and by the time the final notes were played, no-one was in any doubt that this had been a night to remember. Ireland's biggest arts festival had pulled off a blinder.