I don’t think I’ve ever been so disheartened at a music event as I was when I walked up the the Petrillo Music Shell last night. The venue, which was sold out and packed to the brim the previous two nights, was almost empty. The free lawn area was sparsely dotted with curious Taste-goers rather than adoring fans, and this for two award-winning, Grammy-nominated groups on a Friday night…in Chicago’s Grant Park…at a highly anticipated annual summer event.
Grammy-nominated for best Bluegrass album in 2013 for Scratch Gravel Road, The Special Consensus regaled folks with popular songs “Rounder’s Spirit,” “Sea of Heartbreak” and the fast-paced, title song “Scratch Gravel Road.” In addition, they offered up a Celtic song in tribute to The Chieftains, as well as a couple of John Denver covers. With deep harmonies, a varied set list and true understanding of their genre, The Special Consensus was the perfect introduction to legendary band, The Chieftains.
What was difficult for me to witness was the lack of a turnout for The Chieftains, who have been making music as a group for 53 years, and who have collaborated with artists like Sting, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, modern favorites like The Civil Wars and Bon Iver, and even Madonna. Their success with blending countless genres of music which come and go with timeless Irish folk music is unparalleled. For example, on their album Tears Of Stone, The Chieftains collaborated with Japanese songstress Akiko Yano on “Sake In The Jar” in a seamless fusion of traditional Japanese music and Irish folk.
They played a variety of songs, including an a cappella Irish drinking song, “Mo Ghile Mear” (originally performed with Sting), and “Troublemaker’s Jig,” which member Paddy Moloney wrote for a friend’s use in a documentary. One of their best performances was a rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” for which The Chieftains won the Grammy nomination of “Best Country Instrumental Performance” for their collaboration with Ricky Skaggs in 1992.
But half of the fun of their set was the introduction of other traditional Irish dance and their inclusion of local singing and playing groups. Multiple times, one of The Chieftains’ guest violinists popped up from his seat and jigged with two fellow dancers, adding movement to the stage of seated musicians. Other guests included Chicago Caledonian Pipe and Drum band for a “March To Battle” song, an Irish dancing group made of up five young girls, and a local choir, the Irish Heritage Singers, all of whom were incredibly talented and added something special to the concert.
I honestly just cannot believe that so few came to see The Chieftains perform, particularly as Chicago is known for its large Irish population. But I have no doubt that this was a once in a lifetime chance for me, and I’m proud to have seen them live.