The Chieftains’ latest comes out at an advantageous time on the calendar, shortly before St. Patrick’s Day. But the Celtic music veterans aren’t simply taking advantage of what is actually a somber occasion in the group’s homeland of Ireland. Like their collaborations with bluegrass musicians, the members aim to connect the dots of humanity on San Patricio rather than provide a soundtrack for the unseemly American observance of getting fall-down drunk in public.
The album’s roots are steeped in the little known history that unites those of Irish and Mexican ancestry. Fleeing the Potato Famine, Irish immigrants went into service — some forced — for the United States during the Mexican-American War. Treated badly and unhappy that these Emerald Isle Catholics were fighting other North American Catholics in this Manifest Destiny war of aggression, thousands deserted and crossed the Rio Grande to fight with the Mexicans. The San Patricios, a.k.a. the Legion of Saint Patrick, fought battles against the Americans until they were captured, and then hung for treason or branded with a “D” for ‘deserter’ and freed.
An explanation of the album’s fact-based roots from Chieftains founder and driving force Paddy Maloney can be found in the CD insert, while narration from Liam Neeson during “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande)” gives the situation a degree of dramatic gravitas. As for Ry Cooder, it is his experience as a musician and producer that he brings together the right participants to this unfolding musical tale – Linda Rondstadt, Los Folkloristas, Carlos Nunez, Moya Brennan and Banda de Gaita de Batallon – and then make sure that their contributions become a seamless part of the whole. Like Neeson’s tracks, Cooder’s original composition, “The Sands of Mexico,” offers lyrical and instrumental illumination to the proceedings.
On the bluegrass collaborations Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions and its sequel, Further Down the Old Plank Road, Maloney and his fellow Chieftains — Seán Keane, Kevin Conneff, Matt Molloy found musical compatriots that extended from the Emerald Isle to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, the members subjugate their instrumentation to the sounds of another land, with each nation’s style flip-flopping in influencing the other. Opening number, “La Iguana” with vocalist Lila Downs and “El Caballo” with Los Camperos de Valles mesh the two sides quite well, while “El Chivo” and “La Golondrina” find the Chieftains playing more of a background role without losing the song’s Celtic roots. And during the “Finale” it becomes a musical free for all that weaves the tapestry of musical traditions of Ireland and Mexico together in a union not unlike the San Patricio fighters uniting with their ‘brothers’ who just happened to live across the Rio Grande.