You'd never know from watching the Chieftains' concert on Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre that just a few weeks ago the Irish ensemble's tour was disrupted by a dispute that caused the sudden withdrawal of co-headliner Nanci Griffith. After all, the Chieftains' trademark in concert and on album is chummy camaraderie. Monday was no exception.
The finale was virtually an on-stage U.N., ceilidh style: Michelle Shocked (replacing Griffith for this show), special guest Midge Ure, opening act Ashley MacIsaac (the young Cape Breton fiddler whose boisterous set and dude-ish 'tude reportedly caused Griffith's exit) and his band, four champion Irish step dancers and two preteen New Orleans street musicians all joining in rollicking licks and good-natured dirty looks.
For all that, the Chieftains remain as much a model of virtuosity as of spirit, each of the six members a master of his instrument. And with uilleann pipes player Paddy Moloney in his customary emcee role, it was all delivered with an impish casualness that almost belied the quality, as if the group shrugs off its role in sparking the ongoing Celtic music explosion.
Shocked was understandably ragged in her fill-in role, but also quite spirited, especially when accompanied by the two cousins she'd brought from New Orleans, trumpeter Troy Michael Andrews and drummer Travis Hill.
Fiddle fiend MacIsaac, stomping around the stage in a kilt and clunky boots, won the audience with his Pearl Jam meets "The Highlander" high concept. It's a bit calculated, but with such results as "Sleepy Maggie"--a "Cape Breton disco Gaelic song" beautifully sung by Mary Jane Lamond--he transcends gimmickry.