I have a soft spot for Irish traditional music BUT I am not a massive fan. I love the sound of the pipes and flutes and harps and box but sometimes a couple of reels and jigs and I am a little bored. When it blends with something else is when Irish trad grabs my attention; Horslips and Moving Hearts were the bands that gave me my sense of Irishness growing up in very anti-Irish Ballymena. The Chieftains have been blending, mixing and collaborating for some time now. Their Christmas album Bells Of Dublin featured Jackson Browne, Nanci Griffith and Rickie Lee Jones among others; Long Black Veil had guest vocalists like The Rolling Stones, Sting and Mark Knopfler; Tears Of Stone featured female vocalists like Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and Sinead O’Connor to name a few; Further Down The Old Plank Road was shared with almost every country singer in Nashville; and their last outing St. Patrico was a collaboration with Ry Cooder.
Voice of Ages was to be a 50 Year Celebration of the band and apparently started out as a possible 50 minute jam that perhaps we hear a snippet of on the eleven minute The Chieftains Reunion. Using T-Bone Burnett however was a stroke of genius. I would pretty much buy anything that Burnett produces and it so happens that as he was producing The Chieftains he was also doing a Hunger Games soundtrack. As a result a film pitched at teenagers and a Golden Anniversary of Irish trad players got the same vocalists. In all the collaborations mentioned above The Chieftains have never been so up to date. The list of current cool names is endless from Grammy winners Bon Iver and Civil Wars through The Decemberists Low Anthem, Paulo Nutini, Lisa Hannigan, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, The Secret Sisters and more. T-Bone Burnett has given The Chieftains the best 50th Anniversary possible; contemporary relevance.
And it works wonderfully. Bon Iver’s emotional layers with Irish twist. Lisa Hannigan’s take on my home city’s river My Lagan Love is beautiful as The Civil Wars vocal on Lily Love written by John Paul White. The Decemberists rough up Bob Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In like they could tour with The Dubliners. The Low Anthem sneak a wee corner of Woodstock into County Kerry. The Carolina Chocolate Drops blend beautifully in a crisper cleaner version of The Pogues. The Secret Sisters and Paulo Nutuni are a perfect fit vocally and The Punch Brothers in sound.
All in all, this is a beautiful record and I think what Burnett has succeeded in doing is bringing a range of artists into the project without losing the foundational place of The Chieftains or making it sound like a various artists compilation. If you buy one Irish trad album this year...