Take away the parades. Blockade the crowds of green. Lock up the Guinness and put the lid on ethnically inaccurate servings of corned beef. If you want to know what really courses through the veins of anyone with Celtic lineage, turn away from these propagated accompaniments and listen to the music.
The tribal thump of the bodhrán. The tin whistle and pipes, the accordion, fiddles and flutes. Let their communion march through your chest, dizzy your head and tap your heel, and understand that this instrumental infusion is what fuels the Irish heartbeat.
Also understand that no collection of traditional musicians are better at facilitating this ancestral pulse than the Chieftains, who were joined by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday to officially usher in the season’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend with a rousing two-hour session inside Kleinhans Music Hall.
Formed in Dublin in 1962 by founding member Paddy Moloney, the six-time Grammy winners have not only devised the soundtrack for family hooleys, step-dancing duels and pub dates, but have popularized Ireland’s traditional music on a worldwide scale. They’ve collaborated with expected partners like Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison; backed the likes of Bon Iver and Ziggy Marley (for a tremendous version of his father’s “Redemption Song”); and paved the way for more frenetic pipe-wielding acts like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. For over five decades, musicians of all types have flocked to the band’s rare blend of cycling rhythms and spiritual cohesion, hoping to bask in the glow of the Chieftains’ emerald-hued incandescence.
On Friday night, it was the BPO’s turn to benefit from the band’s cathartic radiance – but not until after the Chieftains had the spotlight to themselves.
Joined by longtime bandmates Kevin Conneff on bodhrán and Matt Molloy on flute, Moloney led the trio on tin whistle through a somber instrumental entry into Conneff’s vocals for the lighthearted jaunt “Changing Your Demeanour.” Backed on this tour by harpist Triona Marshall, acoustic guitarist Tim Edey, banjo player Martin Murray, and fiddlers Tara Breen and Jon Pilatzke (both expertly sitting in for now part-time Chieftains fiddler Sean Keane), the band’s first offering set the tone for their first set’s balanced pace.
Beautiful ballad “Carrickfergus” was countered by the raucous burst of the Nelson Mandela-inspired “Troublemaker’s Jig.” Scottish singer Alyth McCormack’s earnest vocals preceded manic step-dancing reels by multi-tasking fiddler Pilatzke, and a Sting-less version of the heroic “Mo Ghile Mear” transitioned into Buffalo’s Rince na Tiarna dancers adding some elegant stomp on “Rocky Road to Dublin.”
Thankfully, this balance not only remained when the Philharmonic players joined Moloney and Co. for the night’s second set. It was augmented, as was the power and depth behind arrangements typically executed with flutes, fiddles and uilleann pipes.
Instead of the usual regal push behind “March of the King of Laois,” there was a Gaelic storm of backing strings, brass and cymbals. After the Moloney-led introduction of “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande),” Niagara Falls’ McKenzie Highlanders Pipe Band injected the original with a hail of percussion and bagpipes. And during the second set’s 20-minute finale medley, the BPO’s chorus complemented the swirl of fiddle solos with a few verses of “Buffalo Gals.”
But at the center of it all were the night’s headliner. During their aforementioned finale, the trio stepped to the forefront for their own instrumental solo. One by one, each delivered a piece of what makes the band’s music so resonant for so many. When joined as one, their euphoric and elegiac sound thumps the pulse of Irish heritage – and on it marches, one song at a time.