The Chieftains, Royal Festival Hall.
This concert was part of a 'Capital Summer' series apparently promoted by London's 'Independent' 'Local' (Is the IBA independent? Is a potential audience of 7000000 in Greater London local? You tell me) station, Capital Radio. What on earth they were doing being involved in this one I shall never know. The Chieftains would never get on the playlist — they're too good! But the concert was recorded by the Maison Rouge Mobile in glorious Technicolor (TM) Red, so presumably they're thinking of transmitting some of it at some point.
The Chieftains played to a packed house: well I could only see the odd couple of spare seats. And its hardly surprising. They've built up a good following over the years, concentrating primarily on Trad Irish Tunes. The concert coincided with their first release on CBS Records: Chieftains 7; their other albums having been transferred from the Island catalogue — a good capture for CBS, one would imagine. The band has a worldwide audience, and again, it's hardly surprising.
The concert itself was excellent: the boys obviously enjoyed playing as much as we all enjoyed listening; it was good fun and frolics all round. Master harper Derek Bell (whose Claddagh Records album, Carolan's Receipt, is a treasured possession, fortuitously collected from HMV Oxford Street) kept amusing the cognoscenti by playing the Five Tones from Close Encounters on every instrument he touched, be it harp, oboe or the psaltery-like thing which I presume is a Tiompan (yes?). Paddy Moloney's Uillean Pipes (best described as a sort of bagpipe, but pumped up with bellows and sounding rather nicer) were a delight: they must be horrifying to play, yet nimble fingerwork and other obscure motions produced some amazing lines and divisions. Another example of his style may be heard on Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn. Kevin Conneff managed to get some particularly rapid percussive patterns: I've tried to coax criss-cross rhythms from the Bodhran myself but I've always failed to keep the little double-ended stick twirling successfully. When played correctly, however, as in this case, a multiplicity of beats and syncopations emerge. In fact, the whole band are brilliant master-musicians, and it's a shame that space is too short to mention them all.
One thing that annoyed me, however, was the sound. The Festival Hall is quite capable of presenting chamber music to an audience this size without amplification, so why did the Chieftains require it? I appreciate the problems of balance between 'loud' and 'soft' instruments, for example tin whistle against Tiompan, but surely a band of this type has its own internal balance by virtue of the instrumental complement and good arrangements? The PA was in general presenting an uneven balance (it's very hard to juggle with the varying levels inherent in acoustic instruments of these types, so no-one, least of all the engineer, is actually 'to blame') and its use required the addition of two extra banks of unsightly stage monitors: luckily as it turned out, because at one point the harp accompaniment to a solo piece emerged only from the monitors and not from the PA. Being seated close to the left-channel didn't help in our case, and neither did a persistent buzz, noticeable in quiet passages.
And there's another problem too. These kinds of instruments, assuming you've decided to use amplification at all, respond poorly to close-miking. And while this gig was being recorded multitrack, and thus required separation, there were problems which were apparent in the sound, and will no doubt provide problems on the mix from the multitrack. Take the oboe, for example. An ideal recording situation would probably make possible the use of a U87 some distance overhead. But close-miked, the best place must be quite near to the body of the instrument, enhancing key-clicks and rattles, breath noises and a loss of the lower notes (which would emerge further down the instrument). This latter problem was apparent at the gig: high notes predominated, with little bottom end. Paddy's pipes, too, exhibited a good sound on the chanter, but suffered a lack of (separately-miked) drone notes. The overall result was a tendency to harshness and loss of warmth. As the RFH is capable of exceptional acoustic results, I think I would have at least experimented with a totally acoustic sound, recording the concert with a couple of D222s or similar, in coincident-pair configuration, on a simple Revox or two. This would also have caught the ambience of the hall and the audience. The Calrec Soundfield mic would have been an even better alternative, bearing in mind the possibilities of mixing down the B-format tapes with a series of tracks culled from the 'postrecording' directional opportunities offered by the system. Still, overall, an excellent gig, musically at least.
Sound Reports & Views
Music Review by Richard Elen
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