Thursday, July 27, 2006

We had the Beatles coming to our shows

Of all the bands on the bill at this year's folk festival, the one who has the longest relationship with the event must be The Chieftains.

The legendary Irish folk group first played at Cambridge in 1969 when they had just two albums and all still had day jobs.

It may have been nearly 40 years ago, but it's a day the band's founder Paddy Maloney remembers well.

"There was just four of us at the time because two of the lads were kind of on a sabbatical," he recalls. "So I didn't have a harp but we had bodhran and pipes and fiddle and the response there was just incredible, we were coming back on to do encores and it felt like there was 25,000 people there. It was just fabulous.

"It was a sunny day, thank God. I can't remember who was headlining, but I do remember all the folky flower people around and that great sense of a new awareness and recognition of folk music."

It was a time when groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were starting out and folk seemed to be an unstoppable force in music once again. Paddy remembers the surprise of hearing John Peel playing The Chieftains in amongst Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stones tracks.

"I was amazed in the interest from other musicians," he says. "We had The Beatles and Marianne Faithful and people like that coming to our shows in the 60s.

"There was a great buzz in what we were doing even though it was still a period where if you were seen going down the road with a fiddle under your arm you'd get a terrible slagging from your mates. But that all passed and we got tremendous respect from all quarters."

The band were dealt a sad blow in 2002 when harp player Derek Bell - known affectionately by other band members as Ding Dong Bell - died of a heart attack.

But they carried on and will bring several guest artists to Cambridge, including young harpist Trina Marshall, stepdance specialists the Canadian brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke and bluegrass singer Clem O'Brien.

The bluegrass connection is something they have developed over the years. The band have always enjoyed great popularity in the US and Paddy began to research the influence of Irish music on early American folk music finding many similarities.

In 2002 they worked with many of the top names in Nashville on the album Down the Old Plank Road which filled in the missing links between songs that came to America from the earliest Irish immigrants and the bluegrass standards of today (Thursday, 27 July).

"To go to Nashville and spend two weeks there was like going to another town in Ireland," says Paddy. "These people all had it in them - Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs and Alison Krauss, it was just like going home".

The Chieftans have been on the road together for 44 years and Paddy is nearing 70, but their popularity shows no signs of abating. They still play to packed venues around the world, but one of the questions they often get asked nowadays is, 'how long can you keep going?'.

"We've been saying we'll retire for the last 10 years," laughs Paddy. "We were going to do it next year but then a promoter came back to us from Japan and said 'You promised me two years ago you would come back', so now we're going to Japan and then other things came up and so it goes on."

The Chieftans headline the festival on Saturday.


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