Chief Among Men: The Chieftains' new album was Derek Bell's last collaboration with the band.
The Road Goes On
Chieftains regroup after loss of Derek Bell
By Greg Cahill
Talk about an odd couple. On the one hand: Paddy Maloney, consummate showman and gregarious founder of the Grammy-winning Irish folk band the Chieftains--who plays tin whistle and uilleann pipes--a Catholic Dubliner renowned for his onstage antics and casual dress. On the other hand: classically trained harpist Derek Bell, a quiet academic, a Protestant, and a Belfast native (the band's sole Ulsterman), who cut a bookish figure in his trademark rumpled suit, sweater vest, and tie.
On Oct. 17, just a month after the release of the band's latest album, Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions (BMG), Bell died of unknown causes after entering a Phoenix hospital for what was expected to be a routine procedure.
"We are like family, the Chieftains, and Derek spent half his life with us, so it was quite a shock to lose him," says Maloney during a phone interview from his Dublin home. "He'll be sadly missed, the poor devil."
The last concert the Chieftains performed together with Bell took place Sept. 30 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. "Even then he was up to his tricks onstage," Maloney recalls fondly. "He and I had great banter; I was always giving him a hard time. Now I won't have anybody to toss the penny at to try and stop him from playing."
This week the Chieftains embark on a 30-city tour (their 41st U.S. tour!) that brings them on Jan. 20 to Santa Rosa before winding up on St. Patrick's Day in New York City. Originally the tour was planned to help promote the new album--which was nominated for a Grammy award this week--but now it is dedicated to their late friend.
Rather than try and replace Bell, the Chieftains are recruiting a different Celtic harpist at each stop on the tour. "You can't replace Derek, of course," Maloney says. "He was very unique, a real funny and eccentric character. So we've decided to go down a different road."
That road has led the Chieftains to English-born pop cellist Caroline LaVelle, who learned to play Celtic music during a stint with De Danann. LaVelle, who recently released the solo album Brilliant Midnight 2.0, isn't your typical cellist. She has recorded with the likes of Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Massive Attack, and toured extensively with flamboyant British violinist Nigel Kennedy during his Jimi Hendrix phase.
In November LaVelle performed at Bell's memorial service in Belfast along with Irish songstress Loreena McKennitt.
Her current assignment helps fulfill a longtime dream of Maloney's. He originally planned to hire a cellist back when the band was formed in 1962, but eventually settled on a harpist instead when Bell joined the group in 1972. "I always had my sights set on a cellist to help round off the sound, but then Derek came around and that completed it," he explains.
The exuberant album Down the Old Plank Road--on which Bell plays a prominent role--explores the Irish roots of bluegrass and country music in a fashion reminiscent of the band's acclaimed 1992 release Another Country (BMG), an album the All Music Guide called "a never-ending country grab bag of musical mastery."
The new album also features an all-star country lineup that includes Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Vince Gill, Patty Griffin, Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and Buddy and Julie Miller.
"The Chieftains came to the mountain, and the mountain recognized its kin," the Dallas Morning News declared. "It is one glorious front-porch jam session."
Clearly, the Irish roots of American culture are a rich source of inspiration for the Chieftains; the band contributed two tracks to the Gangs of New York soundtrack, and Maloney has recorded the plaintive theme song to Gods and Generals, a new film about two Irish regiments that clashed during the American Civil War. And that's not all. Maloney says he is sitting on outtakes from both Down the Old Plank Road and Another Country, and plans to record additional tracks with Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and others for a follow-up in the same vein.
"I always intended to go back and finish that project," Maloney says of Another Country. "The unused tracks include a session with the late Chet Atkins in which he actually says, 'Just a minute, I just want to grease the tops of my fingers from behind my ears.' It's a lovely line from Chet," he ends with a laugh.
The Chieftains perform Monday, Jan. 20, at 8pm with country singer Allison Moorer, at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $35-$60. 707.546.3600.
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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.