The rocky road from Dublin stretched far from the Singletary Center for the Arts last night. With Ireland’s foremost musical ambassadors, The Chieftains, as tour guides, it wound through Canada to pick up several intensely spirited Ottawa Valley stepdancers. It rolled through Nashville, offering obvious links between Celtic music’s animated past and the string music we today view as bluegrass. It dipped down to Haiti to welcome a wide-eyed children’s choir that discovered one of the most basic and joyous means of communication. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan climbed aboard, too. So did the remarkable Scots Gaelic vocalist Alyth McCormack. And by the time the party arrived back onstage, it had teamed up an entire pipe band and a team of Irish dancers, all from Lexington.
In the end, it was Alltech president Pearse Lyons’ party. Serving as emcee, the evening was designed as the centerpiece of the Alltech Fortnight Festival, the extensive parade of stylistically diverse concerts that have been running concurrently with the World Equestrian Games.
But Lyons’ involvement with last night’s show obviously went deeper even than the WEG. The 20-plus children making up the Haitian Harmony Choir were living symbols of his work at bringing sustainable commerce and education to an impoverished country further battered by last January’s horrific earthquake.
The choir entered at the end of the first set, sang a few songs in French and offered the unity anthem He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands with the levels of innocence and openness that only children can summon. But the most touching aspect of their performance had nothing to do with music. After being introduced by Lyons and joined by Tynan, several children broke through the language barrier and waved to the audience. The audience waved back. And the kids erupted with smiles that could have lit up the back row.
And The Chieftains? They were typically brilliant. Whittled down to a trio – founder/piper Paddy Moloney, percussionist/vocalist Kevin Conneff and flutist Matt Molloy – the group surrounded itself with a battalion of aptly billed “friends” and a global stew of music references.
They called upon Nashville guitarist Jeff White to toss Wabash Cannonball into the mix, enlisted the gorgeous McCormick to sing the stark Foggy Dew and weaved a set of reels for step dancers Jon and Nathan Pilatzske and Cara Butler as well as the local McTeggart Irish Dancers to sail brightly to. And with Moloney firing up the engine room on the uileann pipes (which he lovingly referred to at one point as “The Octopus”), The Chieftains also held very tightly to traditional roots.
Aided by Irish harpist Triona Marshall, the band served up a ballet-like version of Carolan’s Concerto that paid tribute to one of The Chieftains’ most lasting influences (the 17th century Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan) as well as one of its craftiest alumnis (the late harpist Derek Bell).
For pure physical drama, though, the showstopper had to be The March to Battle, a solemn processional from The Chieftains’ recent San Patricio album that enlisted the Kentucky United Pipes and Drums Band. Trust me, hearing a battery of bagpipes playing majestically within the Singletary walls hits one in the heart almost as solidly as it does in the chest. You can bet this one was heard last night all the way down in Port au Prince.