Review: “San Patricio,” The Chieftains & Ry Cooder

The first few songs on the brilliant new album San Patricio are the musical equivalent of opening a surprise gift on Christmas Day.  A delicate Mexican flavored tune happily strummed on guitars suddenly takes on the flavor of an Irish reel, and singers in Spanish begin this unique musical journey.

This album is by the revered Irish band the Chieftains, known for their evocative instrumentals and all-star collaborations (The Long Black Veil, and the Christmas album The Bells of Dublin), and roots music curator and stellar guitarist Ry Cooder.  San Patricio tells the musical story of Irish immigrants who left their homeland during the Potato Famine of 1845 to begin a new life in America.  Some were drafted into the U.S. Army, fighting in the Mexican-American War only to encounter the same sort of injustices they left behind in Ireland.  Thus was born the San Patricio Battalion — Irishmen fighting alongside Mexicans against Americans.

The music on San Patricio (Spanish for “St. Patrick”) is continually astounding and engaging – guest singer Linda Ronstadt lends her tequila-clear voice to “A la Orilla de una Palmar,” to contrast the husky bolero “Luz de Luna” sung by 91-year-old ranchera singer Chavela Vargas.  Cooder’s weathered voice and shimmering guitar enhance “The Sands Of Mexico,” and even Oscar-nominated Irish actor Liam Neeson turns up, talk-singing on the stirring “March To Battle (Across The Rio Grande).”  The cast of guest performers includes legendary arranger Van Dyke Parks, Mexican singer Lila Downs, Moya Brennan from Clannad and Latin Grammy winners Los Tigres del Norte.

San Patricio is more than a musical history lesson or a curiosity for the NPR crowd.  It’s a treasure chest of surprising and engaging music and a tribute to the brilliance of Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney, who came up with the idea for this project more than 15 years ago.  It’s a great album, also perfect for St. Paddy’s day.

MP3: “La Iguana” (featuring Lila Downs)

MP3: “The Sands of Mexico” (featuring Ry Cooder)

The Chieftains official website

Ry Cooder fan page

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