Monday, August 30, 2010

The Chieftains

When Cathy was home the summer one of the things she decided to do was go into her parent's basement and find what stuff we still had in storage there and try to purge most of it.

Alas, the comic books are still there because we simply have no idea what to do with them. However, there were the books and CDs we had left there. The books fell into three categories - ones we no longer cared about, books we liked but could order online again rather than going through the hassle of trying to ship them up here and books we liked that were out of print. The later meant Cathy came up with a suitcase with a dozen or more books. Most of them, I confess, are mine.

Then there were the CDs. I sold most of my CDs before coming up here. I transferred most of the music to my iPod so why did I need to keep the CDs? Well, when the iPod crashed two days before moving here, wiping out about 4,000 songs, it certainly would have been useful to have still had the music, I must say.

The CDs I did keep were ones I didn't want to transfer to the iPod, but might want again one day. For example, I have a couple with radio plays of Neil Gaiman short stories that I quite like. And then there are the Chieftain CDs.

All 23 of them.

I simply couldn't put 23 Chieftains CDs on the iPod. It was only 20 gigs and that would have killed about 20 per cent of the space available. I love the band, but even that would be a bit too much Chieftains for me. So I copied some of my favourite songs and put the rest in storage. But now, they're back in my hands and I have to figure out what to do with them.

It's not every band you remember when you got hooked on them. I couldn't tell you when I got hooked on the Beatles or U2. But I remember when The Chieftains hooked me. I was at King's College in Halifax in '94. I popped over to the student union building at Dalhousie, where someone was selling CDs cheap. I saw the Chieftains "An Irish Evening" in the pile for $5.

At this point I was very much into Celtic hybrid bands. Acts like Figgy Duff, Spirit of the West and the Pogues...who clearly came from a Celtic music tradition. But for whatever reason I shied away from the more hardcore traditional Celtic bands. Too old fashion, I guess. I was envisioning the Irish Rovers or something.

However, I was flush with student loan money, it was only $5 so why not.

I was instantly hooked. I seriously must have driven my roommate insane because I listened to that CD so much. I've tried for a long time to figure out why The Chieftains hooked me so much. They are, no doubt, a world class band, the tops in their field. Plus, they weren't afraid to play with arrangements a bit and take modern musicians like Sting and fold them into their music. But it was Sting adapting to them, not the band adapting to Sting.

But what I think what did it was they were outside of my musical experience. Most of the music I grew up with were pop and rock. Country music was awful. Classical music, unless it was the instrumental theme to Star Wars, was boring. And Celtic music in its "pure form" was just...old. Old guys plunking away at the same old standards. The only time it worked, in my mind at that time, was when younger musicians played with the arrangement and injected modern sensibilities into it.

But The Chieftains never sounded old to me. They were alive and filled with more energy than bands half their age. The professional craftsmanship, the ability of a half dozen or more instruments to sound like an orchestra, their ability to interweave and go off on different tangents, but then all come together perfectly on cue.

It was magic, in the best sense of the world. The kind of magic you rarely hear in music.

So yes, hooked big time. And when you introduce a band with a 30-odd year history to a person who is a collector with a vicious need to be a completionist, well, you're going to start seeing a lot of money fly out the window. I managed to pick up a lot of the easy CDs, such as "The Long, Black Veil" and "The Bells of Dublin". But then I got all of their recent stuff and needed to get their old ones. The CDs were almost impossible to find in North America. And since this was the early days of the internet, it's not like I could pop on eBay and track down the gaps.

Let's just say I didn't blink at dropping $30 if I found an imported Chieftains CD I didn't have.

Like anything, the passion fades a bit over the years. By the time I met Cathy in 2001 the worst of that initial fire had burned out. I still loved the band, but I wasn't really spending a lot of time listening to The Chieftains' CD version of "The Irish Horse".

But now I have all the CDs and I haven't listened to most of them in more than five years. I'm quite curious to see how they're going to hold up and if I'm going to copy them to my iPod. I have the funny feeling Cathy might regret bringing them up over the next couple of weeks...

Last Five
1. Chinatown/For the record - Joel Plaskett Emergency
2. Power to the people = Black Eyed Peas
3. Brilliant mistake - Elvis Costello
4. Daughters of sorrow - The New Pornographers
5. The smidge - The Hold Steady


Jay L said...

Your significant other may hate me for this, but when you need a long-out-of-print CD, is the place to go. Leaves eBay in the dust when it comes to that sort of thing.

Hallett said...'s another perspective.

The early Chieftains CDs were recorded live to tape, for the most part, with the band all playing together. The sound of the wood and the wire, the chuff of the whistles, the squeek of the pipes and the creak of leather is all part of the experience. Besides, this recording format creates a warmth and immediacy to the audio. These albums were designed to be listened to on LP's, which in fact is what the tapes were mastered for. When the Chisftains various labels re-released the early albums, they just burned CDs from the original masters.

While these CDs are a bit shiny and thin, they still offer way more depth, clarity and fidelity than the hyper-compressed MP3 format used by iTunes. MP3 compression cuts a lot of top and bottom information which is supposedly inaudible; to anyone who cares, the difference is very noticeable.

If you really love this music, leave it in CD world, and keep them as a guilty pleasure. If you must burn them, fuck with the iTunes format, and burn them as .wav files. At least then you will preserve the hi and low end this music was mean't to have.

Wisewebwoman said...

Me too. And a friend just mailed me the latest with the Chieftains in Mexico.
they just never get stale.
Upgrade the Ipod.