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Get Your Irish On

Ireland's top traditional band visits Richmond for an early St. Patty's Day.

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The group's lilting, dancing, spellbinding sound is characterized by intertwining pipes played in close harmony, swelling with fiddle and driven with the traditional bodhran drum. The Chieftains' earliest recordings have a charming purity of sound, but by the mid-'70s, they became more ambitious, recording conceptual historical albums like "Bonaparte's Retreat" and appearing prominently on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's epic "Barry Lyndon."

"From the early days, we were approached by people like Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel," founder and pipe-player Moloney says. "After 20-odd albums, I had the idea to ask people to join us. They always sang the music we wanted to do — collaboration without compromise."

The group's projects include the brilliant "Irish Heartbeat" with Van Morrison, the all-star "Long Black Veil" and "Down the Old Plank Road," which proved the affinity between traditional Irish and American music.

"In Nashville we sat down together, and it only took 10 minutes before the musicians knew what to play," Moloney says. "It was just like another little town in the south of Ireland."

Over the years their tours have become increasing theatrical; Michael Flatley of "Riverdance" fame started as a featured Chieftains performer. The current tour, which hits the Landmark Theater March 15, touches all the bases. "For the Virginia lineup, it will be a real show," Moloney promises. "Not just us, but some young bloods as well."

The expanded Chieftains troupe includes Ottawa Valley step dancer/Cape Breton fiddler Jon Pilatzke and his brother Nathan; bluegrass singer/guitarist Jeff White; harpist Triona Marshall; and the Nova Scotia-based double brother/sister pairs The Cottars. The show is a fast-fingered and -footed exploration of the greater Celtic heritage.

At the quiet heart of it all are the four original Chieftains: Moloney on pipes and whistle, Sean Keane on fiddle, Kevin Conneff on bodhran and vocals, and Matt Molloy on flute. The homespun complexity of their acoustic playing remains charming and, when the clouds of performance part for a solo, the timeless charm of their original work shines through.

The Chieftains' current lineup has been stable since the late '70s. The only significant change came when harpist Derek Bell died in 2002. Their most recent CD, "Live From Dublin," a tribute to Bell, was nominated for a 2006 Grammy. "But it was not to be," Molloy says. "I've learned if anyone tells you something is sure, it's sure not to happen."

That rule presumably does not apply to Moloney's promise that the upcoming show is sure to be a corker. "We have so many varieties of music to choose from," he says. "Reels, dances, songs and laments ... If there are local dancers or bagpipers, we'll contact them. We'll even invite the audience to come up and dance a simple little thing."

"We are not going to disappoint you," Moloney says with an audible twinkle in his brogue. "We've never failed, given a good whack." S



The Chieftains play Landmark Theatre March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $22-$32, are available through TicketMaster at 262-8100 or www.ticketmaster.com.

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