What makes the collaborative summits involving The Chieftains so appealing over the years is a crafty game of give and take that has the champion Irish band always maintaining the upper hand.
Its recordings might resemble something of a cultural exchange on paper, with the traditional jigs, airs and reels that chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney and crew have specialized in during the past half-century meshing with whatever folk, pop, country or Americana greats are sitting in on a session. In the end, though, The Chieftains' Irish sway has the last and most convincing say.
In other words, while the party is always great, The Chieftains want to make sure you head home with the hosts' music taking the most dance turns in your head.
That occurs often on Voice of Ages, a fine new set of Chieftains collaborations with predominantly roots-driven, indie-style acts making up the guest list. Among the invited: Bon Iver, The Civil Wars, Punch Brothers, The Low Anthem and more. Producing with Moloney is Americana entrepreneur T Bone Burnett.
The grand moment comes when The Decemberists let loose with a hale-and-hearty reading of Bob Dylan's brilliant call-to-arms When the Ship Comes In. It begins, understandably, as stark American folk with the slight quiver in singer Colin Meloy's voice setting the mood. The arrangement slowly mounts, and the melodies turn more jubilant. In short order, The Chieftains' potent chatter of whistles, fiddles and pipes tosses the tune clear across the pond onto Irish shores. A brisk three minutes later, the tune concludes as a Celtic shuffle.
Almost as lively is the wintry sprint that string-band upstarts Punch Brothers conjure during a medley of The Lark in the Clear Air and Olam Punch. Moloney clearly sets the rules here, opening with a light, cinematic drone. That bleeds straight into a more open-ended romp with the merry slant of Chieftain Kevin Conneff's vocals placed out front. Punch Brothers later return for the more stoic The Frost Is All Over, with Chris Thile in the vocal lead.
Bon Iver's ultra-wistful Down in the Willow Garden is a more modest but murderous treat, the Carolina Chocolate Drops hitch their back-porch folk fun to Pretty Little Girl, and Imelda May roughs up the Irish fancy with a lean roots-rock accent on Carolina Rua.
But the album's heartiest guest voices belong to flutist Michael Tubridy and tin whistler Sean Potts — surviving members, along with Moloney, of the first Chieftains line-up from the early '60s. Hearing them join forces on the 11-minute medley The Chieftains Reunion reveals how the Voice of Ages' richest Irish fun is summoned after the rest of the guests have called it a night.