The Chieftains already hold one world record, for playing before the largest live audience ever -- 1,350,000 in Dublin's Phoenix Park. Of course, piper Paddy Moloney will admit they were there as an opening act -- for Pope John Paul II. Now the Irish traditional band is claiming another record: the first group to release two albums in less than 21 days. One is "The Ballad of the Irish Horse," the sound track for the current National Geographic special on the subject. The other, "The Chieftains in China," commemorates a recent tour of China, where the group was the first to perform with a Chinese orchestra and the first to play on the Great Wall.

"It was brilliant altogether," the humble Moloney says of the China tour. "We were warned not to expect too much applause. But we sent over Irish music for their national orchestras to have a go at, which they did, and we played a 20-minute jam session with them at the end of each concert. What we got was a standing ovation every time and the Peking News put it down as the best cultural exchange they'd ever had."

When the Chieftains perform at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday, they will be joined by Chinese erhu player Chen Hsi-Shuan. "He's traveling with us, and he'll be joining us for the Chinese medley," Moloney says, adding that "he's going down extremely well." There will also be a medley from Moloney's original score for "Irish Horse," one more film credit on an impressive list that stretches from "Barry Lyndon" to "The Grey Fox." Champion dancer Michael Flatley will perform as well.

Moloney points out that this is the first of the Chieftains' annual visits to Washington to actually fall on St. Patrick's Eve (they'll be in Baltimore at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Sunday). "That's going to be hell let loose," he laughs. "That's going to leave us room to go a little bit wild down at the Irish Times. Recently we had a night off and we decided to celebrate the Chinese New Year with our friend at a Chinese restaurant, and we blew it." One suspects it made for a joyful noise.