Bill Taylor's latest contribution is a break from our Cover Story series, charting instead the astonishing range of collaborations between the Chieftains and singers and musicians from most genres. Bill mentions Irish Heartbeat, an outstanding album made with Van Morrison - I saw them perform together and separately at the time of its release in a memorable Royal Albert Hall concert compered by John Peel.
Bill's list of artists who have worked with the Chieftains is, as he says, incomplete. Eleven years after Irish Heartbeat, I wrote about another album, Tears of Stone, on which some notable female performers sang. I interviewed one of the artists, Joan Osborne, in a transatlantic call from a Belfast payphone. The occasion sticks in the memory for another reason; when I belatedly joined friends for dinner and ordered a bottle of wine, the bottom of the bottle broke away at the moment the waitress pulled the cork, leaving my notebook drenched in Algerian red (a fuller account of this appears here).
There have been many exceptional versions of On Raglan Road and Osborne's, for that album (which also featured Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall), ranks among them. Now let Bill delve into his own memory ...
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To appear on stage with the Chieftains.
Not a new joke and not a terribly funny one, either. But nor is it inapposite, given the number of musicians who have performed and recorded with Ireland’s so-called “Musical Ambassadors” during their 55-year history.
It’s upwards of 50 and still climbing, from Mick Jagger to Tom Jones, Sinéad O’Connor to Madonna, Sting to Luciano Pavarotti, Art Garfunkel to Marianne Faithfull… easier perhaps to just give the rest of what actually is only a partial list:
Moya Brennan, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Ry Cooder, Elvis Costello, Roger Daltrey, Bela Fleck, James Galway, Glass Tiger, Mike Gordon, Great Big Sea, Nanci Griffith, Kepa Junkera, Mark Knopfler, Nolwenn Leroy, Los Cenzontles, Lyle Lovett, Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, Ziggy Marley, Loreena McKennitt, Natalie Merchant, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, Carlos Núñez, Paolo Nutini, Siobhán O'Brien, Mike Oldfield, Pink Martini, Eros Ramazzotti, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, the Civil Wars, the Corrs, the Dubliners, the Low Anthem, the Rolling Stones, Ultravox, Jim White, John Williams…
Not all of them to your taste, perhaps – certainly not all to mine – but some of the very top names in their varied fields. It speaks to the chameleon-like versatility of the Chieftains.
I’ve seen the band a number of times, with and without guests, and they’ve never been less than spellbinding.
The first time, I almost didn’t see them. It was 1979 in New York and an Irish Ballet Company production of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World with music by the Chieftains. The band stayed hidden in the orchestra pit and didn’t appear until the curtain call.
And I have a cherished memory of a 1992 show in Toronto – guest that night, Canadian blues star Colin James – of Matt Molloy playing The Mason’s Apron and what you would have sworn was a flute duet with himself.
Ubiquitous but sans pareil. Little wonder that many of our musical greats have almost literally stood in line to go on stage with the Chieftains.
So how to how pick out the best guest performances and then reduce them to my top two? It’s not easy.
Mick Jagger’s Long Black Veil comes close. So does Nanci Griffith, with her plaintive Little Love Affairs.
Roger Daltrey almost makes it with Behind Blue Eyes. Somehow, the starkness of Pete Townshend’s lyrics – “If I swallow anything evil, put your finger down my throat” – and Daltrey’s soaring rock ’n’ roll vocal chords meld perfectly with the Chieftains' more traditionally oriented instrumental breaks.
He’s edged out narrowly by Sinéad O’Connor singing The Foggy Dew, her slow delivery and keening voice making this far and away the best version of the song I know.
But not – in my view, anyway – the best performance ever with the Chieftains. That would be Van Morrison and his unparalleled rendition of On Raglan Road from Irish Heartbeat, the album he and the band cut in 1988. There isn’t a bad track on it.
Daltrey, too, has performed this with the Chieftains. I love his version. But Van Morrison gets close to perfection:
The song was written as a poem in 1946 by Patrick Kavanagh and titled at first Dark-Haired Miriam Ran Away.
It’s about a man pushing his way into a relationship with a much younger woman that he knows must end badly for him. It’s autobiographical (though the girl’s name was Hilda, not Miriam) and unsparing of the narrator’s feelings.
Kavanagh was a troubled soul, a boozer and a heavy smoker. His life never ran on smooth tracks. Morrison pulls every ounce of pain from the song, delivering it like a man, perhaps with drink taken, who is anxious for the listener to understand. It moves jerkily at times and he repeats words, his voice dropping to a whisper and then rising towards a roar. It’s a stupendous performance.
For me, it’s simply the finest collaboration the Chieftains have ever done.
* I have added the following to the Salut! Live Amazon record shelf. If you feel like it, help the site a little by using the links: Irish Heartbeat here or Tears of Stone here. Navigate from either to explore the great fund of music the Chieftains have created.