Yet another winter’s snowfall in New York City could not deter the ardent and long-time fans of the band Altan who have been delighting audiences around the world for more than three decades and did so once again at City Winery.
Armed with a brand-new CD being launched on an ambitious and extensive six week US tour called “The Widening Gyre," the venerable outfit who proudly claim the Donegal Gaeltacht as the well-spring for their creativity seemed to have recaptured almost all of the magic that made them one of the most popular Irish bands anywhere in their first 20 years, prodigiously recording and performing when Celtic music seemingly was at its peak commercially in the World Music Scene.
Any band soldiering through the decades has its ebbs and flows and if Altan needed a bit of a revival or even to be introduced to new audiences who hadn’t walked the long road with them, it came to them in myriad ways in the past couple of years culminating in the release of this new CD. Back in 1994 the chance to work with Dolly Parton in Nashville and Tennessee had opened their eyes to the bevy of talent in that part of the world playing a kindred form or folk music with a similar integrity to it not to mention technical brilliance. It occurred to Altan that is was a road they would revisit someday for a recording project but life and many other things intervened.
So when Compass Records founder and co-owner Garry West approached them with the idea of recording in their studios and gathering a number of great musicians stateside to collaborate last year the time was ripe. They also embarked on a successful crowdsourcing campaign through Pledgemusic to raise the money for all the recording sessions and to include even more musicians from their side of the pond. Stateside member Daithi Sproule told me that this production and licensing deal with Compass along with other key changes was coming at the right time to forge ahead with a new sound emanating from one of the great music centers of the world, Nashville Tennessee without any sacrificing of integrity and honesty from either the Irish or the Bluegrass side.
Add to its some internal reorganization within the band with long-time member and phenomenal box player from Buncrana Dermot Byrne opting out and replaced by piano-accordionist Martin Tourish, a cousin of fellow Buncrana member Ciaran Tourish, some compositional strength was gained. When their management was strengthened Stateside to seek new venues it offered a new incentive to produce and promote a new recording that wasn’t just music they had already played over the years. “When you are together as long as we are, there is a tendency to become part of the furniture, so you need to shake things up and we had this opportunity” Mairead ni Mhaonaigh told me last week in an interview.
No worry about Altan leaving behind the music of Donegal and Ulster which they had long championed and made us all aware of so dynamically along with its original sources like Con Cassidy, Johnny Doherty, James Byrne, Vincent and Jimmy Campbell and even Proincias O Maonaigh, Mairead’s father. Those lessons were long instilled in us.
The new recording is strong and forceful and shows off the best qualities of the band who respect great musicianship wherever they come across it. It also reflects the evolving “Transatlantic Sessions” sounds that allow musicians to play alongside one another with respect and simpatico without any dilution of the music from where they hang their hats at home.
The performance at City Winery did not have many of the special guest artists who appear on the new CD though the appearance of Mairead’s nephew Ciaran O Maonaigh and his fiancée Caitlin nic Gabhann integrated into the act was magic. But the Band played many of the fine selections that made the cut and it holds up as well in live performance as it does on the CD which is to say spectacularly.
Later on the tour banjoist and Compass co-ownerr Alison Brown (this weekend at UPENN Annenberg Center on March 7) will join them and later Liz Carroll on the West Coast.
The new CD The Widening Gyre shapes ups as a tour de force for Altan and I feel confident that after this U.S. tour it will be added to its legendary status as well. For more info visit altan.ie.