The Chieftains, The Essential Chieftains (RCA Victor/Legacy, 2006)

The Chieftains! Everybody's favourite Irish band. Everybody's! I recall the first time I heard them. It was on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's stately and luscious Barry Lyndon. I was running to the record store the next day. I had discovered some music that linked me to my own Irish roots. That theme, called "The Women of Ireland (Love Theme from Barry Lyndon), is on this new collection, and still has that unmistakeable attraction. The harp, fiddle, bodhran, pipes, simple straitforward production, and virtuosic playing. In 2004 I checked out a small music shoppe in Limerick and there on the walls around me were all the tools of The Chieftains' trade. "Come to th' pub t'night," the fellow behind the counter offered, "There's a session." Ireland is all about music. And The Chieftains are all about Irish music.

Is this collection Essential? In a word, YES! There's not a bad track on the two densely packed discs. But how could there be?0 There's hardly a bad track on any of the 60-odd albums The Chieftains have been part of. The first disc starts with the sound of the bodhran (Kevin Conneff), then tin whistle (the masterful Paddy Moloney, who also plays uillean pipes), flute (by Matt Molloy), some fiddle (Sean Keane) and Derek Bell's harp (not to mention his occasional addition of dulcimer, oboe, oboe d'amour, oboe cor anglais, harpsichord, mediaeval harp, Kurzweil synthesizer, organ, piano, keyboard & timpani). The names have changed a bit over the years...but not much. Dave Fallon appeared on only one album, Peadar Mercier was only a member for a short time in the mid-'70s, Sean Potts left the group in 1979, as did Michael Tubridy (to become an engineer), Martin Fay retired in 2001, and Derek Bell passed away in 2002. Otherwise, it's been steady as she goes.

Originally they simply played acoustic Irish instrumental music. Vocals came with the addition of Kevin Conneff who replaced Mercier in '76. Once they had a voice...they began to find voices all over the world who wanted to sing with them, from Van Morrison to the Rolling Stones. And voices in the form of instrumentalists from James Galway to Ry Cooder. While Essential does not include their jam session with Mick and Keith (in Frank Zappa's studio) it does feature many of their wonderful collaborations.

The first disc represents the instrumental side (save for a few exceptions) and disc two presents many of the "featured vocalist" tracks. On Disc One you'll find the Barry Lyndon track, still as magical as ever (even removed from Kubrick's glorious images). There are jigs and reels, tunes and marches. I'll leave it to the traditional specialists to identify each and every one, suffice it to say, your feet will know when they're supposed to move; your heart will know when you're supposed to cry; and your soul will know when you're supposed to love. And you will do it all as you respond to this marvelous music. The Chieftains brought World Music from the specialty shops into the home. They were pioneers in creating a welcome setting for exotic sounds.

The years from 1977 (The Chieftains 1) to 2000 are covered on Disc One; 1991-2002 on Disc Two. Of course, not all your favourites will be found on Essential, but you already have the classic Long Black Veil album, right? And the Irish Heartbeat collection done with Van the Man! There's an album so special I bought it twice...the second time as my only souvenir of Belfast! But what is here is, well...essential. You won't find a more balanced view of The Chieftains' music. The traditional folk tunes are here, as are some of the classical pieces that Derek Bell loved. Gaelic songs (with the Rankins, Sting and Alison Kraus); country songs with Ricky Skaggs; Christmas songs with the McGarrigle Sisters and Jackson Browne. Sinead O'Connor, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Carlos Nunez, Bela Fleck, Nanci Griffith, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, even some blues with Buddy & Julie Miller. But the stars remain the Chieftains. Masters of their art.

There are lots of albums released under the name Essential. For once here is an album that fits the claim prefectly. The dictionary defines essential as "constituting the essence of a substance," or "basic," or "the very nature...the highest sense." In the highest sense then, this two-disc set defines fine music; not just Irish music, not even Chieftains' music, but fine music plain and simple. It means you can't live without it. And you shouldn't.

[David Kidney]