- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

In the 43 years since the band was founded, the Chieftains, who play the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, have pushed, prodded and propelled their music to new levels.

They’ve played with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Los Lobos and Bela Fleck. In the process, they’ve earned an Oscar (for 1975’s “Women of Ireland,” featured in the film “Barry Lyndon”) and six Grammys.

Yet through it all, the group’s signature sound remains exactly that: a signature.

“I tried different kinds of combinations in order to get the sound I was looking for,” says Paddy Moloney, the group’s founder, arranger and master of the uilleann pipes. “You look for matching notes and certain tones, and the blending of various instruments.”

So when the group gets together for its annual Kennedy Center show, you can anticipate unexpected combinations, such as with pipe virtuoso Carlos Nunez, who hails from Galicia, the Celtic region of Spain. Even the obvious, such as still more Irish musicians or Irish dancers, can take an unexpected turn.

“It’s quite a big show,” says Mr. Moloney, who has asked a number of guests to join the Chieftains on stage this year. “You never know who’s going to turn up. There’s a kind of magic about that place; the improvisation that takes place is worth everything.”

There will also be an absence on the stage. Longtime friend and collaborator Derek Bell died unexpectedly in 2002. The Chieftains’ new album, “Live From Dublin,” is a tribute to Mr. Bell, who hooked up with the group after he and Mr. Moloney played a BBC concert together in 1972.

In addition to never-before-recorded material from Ireland, the album features music from Galicia and Canada and country music from America in a sampling of the group’s eclectic tastes.

Something about Irish music lends itself well to such permutations, Mr. Moloney says. Perhaps it has something to do with the ins and outs of the Irish experience, a history so compelling that Ry Cooder once referred to the genre as “pictorial.”

“I definitely see the piece before I write it,” Mr. Moloney says. “You don’t just want music; you want to see and smell Ireland.”

No matter how they’ve managed to acquire a new song, the Chieftains’ stamp is unmistakable.

“We’re still unique,” Mr. Moloney says. “A lot of bands have come and gone, but we’re still here.”

• • •

A band that went away for a while but has returned with a vengeance is the Commitments, who appear at the Birchmere on Tuesday. The soul-saturated Irish group got its start back in 1991 when the musicians at its core came together to make a movie about … a soul-saturated Irish group.

The film was Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” and it opened to widespread acclaim.

Today’s band is a bit reconfigured, but several figures, including lead guitarist Kenneth McCluskey (who played Derek “Meat Man” Scully), remain from the original cast of the film.

Other players from the film are drummer Dick Massey (Billy “the Animal” Mooney), who co-manages the band with Mr. McCluskey, and keyboardist Michael Aherne (Stephen “Soul Surgeon” Clifford). Seven more band members round out the group.

Back then, the Dublin natives felt themselves exceptionally well-suited to American soul music.

“The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin,” says one character in the film, which recently was re-released as a two-DVD set.

Didn’t know the Irish did soul? They do indeed, Mr. McCluskey says.

“I used to listen to it endlessly,” says Mr. McCluskey, who first came to the likes of Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers via some Beatles records he picked up when he was 12.

“I kind of liked their versions,” says Mr. McCluskey, whose band performs covers of American soul tunes such as “Mustang Sally” and “Try a Little Tenderness.” “But when I got a little older, I realized where the music really came from.”

It took a bit longer to actually play soul music. Before the Commitments, Mr. McCluskey played with other bands that performed original pieces and covers of late-‘80s songs.

“We were exploratory, trying to create our own sound,” he says. “We’d play whatever was in the charts.”

That was before the movie reintroduced soul music to a new generation. These days, the Commitments are strictly soul stirrers. In fact, they bill themselves as “the saviors of soul.” In 1997, they released a live album, “Committed to Soul,” that features more soul classics. Now they’re looking for a producer for a new CD.

“We have some ideas and some material,” Mr. McCluskey says. “We just need a fresh angle.”

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