When you are 25 years on the road, no matter how good you are, you have to come up with some new ways to help widen your appeal or at least enhance what you have done that allowed you to stay in the game that long. Just go and ask Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains.
Even though, Altan -- the quintessential contemporary trad band -- has a live stage presence second to none and a driving sound and enchanting vocals by founder Mairead ni Mhaonaigh that have pleased audiences around the world for a quarter of a century, it helps to try a new approach.
And so a new CD has just come out, Altan: 25th Anniversary Celebration with the RTE Concert Orchestra, carrying 15 tracks of Altan favorites from various albums over the years recorded with a larger orchestra which illuminates the brilliance that has characterized their long distinguished career.
And the energetic entertainers are embarking on an 18-gig U.S. tour three week tour this week coast to coast on some of the finest stages this country has to offer to reconnect with their many U.S. fans over here.
Declared a national treasure a few years ago when Ireland’s postal service, An Post, issued a commemorative stamp in their honor, Altan have stuck to the hearty roots around the hills and coastlines of Donegal for their inspiration.
The band started simply as the dream of two school teachers married to one another, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh from Gweedore and Frankie Kennedy from Belfast, whose performing duet introduced audiences in America to a huge body of music to be found in the North of Ireland and in particular, its northwest corner of the island in County Donegal.
Mairead with her fiery fiddling and gorgeous voice and Frankie with his fierce flute-playing and devilish wit were a winsome pair that made a great impression at the outset in folk clubs like the Eagle Tavern in Manhattan.
Their lively banter mixed in with a prideful allegiance to the music handed down to them in the North, including Mairead’s heart-rendering songs in the Irish language, had audiences clamoring for more, and their dream came to fruition when the band formed with the addition of bouzouki accompanist extraordinaire Ciaran Curran from Fermanagh and guitarists Mark Kelly (Dublin) who alternated with the U.S.-based Daithi Sproule (Derry).
Eventually the band was “reinforced” with two Buncrana boys, fiddler Ciaran Tourish and box player Dermot Byrne, who solidified that driving Donegal style and finesse that helped Altan sustain the tragic loss of co-founder Kennedy, who succumbed to cancer in 1994. His spirit and inspiration remains with the band, and Mairead’s touching “A Tune for Frankie” is one of the tracks on the new CD (originally recorded on their Blackwater CD in 1996).
Remarkably the band has remained intact for the past 17 years as they blazed a professional trail from Japan to Sydney, London to New York and Los Angeles and seemingly everywhere in between, sometimes in the presence of such political luminaries like Presidents Mary McAleese and Bill Clinton. They have recorded 10 albums for Green Linnet, Virgin and Narada Records to go along with three compilation CDs, with two on the Green Linnet label now controlled by Compass Records (www.compassrecords.com) and a collection of songs by Altan on Narada (www.narada.com).
Their anniversary CD under license to Compass Records came about as a collaboration with Irish composer and arranger Fiachra Trench, who was aware of Altan’s music already and created orchestrations that would enable them to perform with larger classical ensembles and symphonies.
The end result was arrangements that more than emphasized the harmonious sound of their music and added more color to their repertoire. That joint venture was largely assisted with a generous grant from the Arts Council of Ireland and later funding from Foras na Gaeilge to produce the ambitious undertaking of recording with the RTE Concert Orchestra that brings out the full flavor of Altan without any dilution of its core traditional roots.
The upcoming tour will hit many familiar Altan haunts (sans orchestra this time, however) beginning with the always popular Somerville Theater in Boston this Saturday night on March 6.
There are two wonderful New York venues starting with the Upper West Side treasure, Symphony Space’s Peter Norton Theatre (212-864-5400) on Thursday, March 11, sponsored by the World Music Institute (www.worldmusicinstitute.org) as their St. Patrick’s Day Celtic music offering.
On Friday, March 12, they will perform up in Troy, New York at one of the finest acoustic music halls in the country at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (phone 518.273.0038 or www.troymusichall.org) which is worth a drive from anywhere.
For more details visit www.altan.ie.
Cherish Goes Country
AS you know by now, the other big trad outfit marking 25 years is Cherish the Ladies and they were breaking some new ground themselves last week.
In recent years they have managed to carve out a very large new market also among the symphony set playing with a number of orchestras around the country increasingly each year which not only adds a little class to their always beautiful music, but gives them the luxury of staying in one town for a few nights.
Anyhow, recently they were so inspired by playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra that they stretched the visit to Music City USA and went into the recording studio there for their first Nashville recording effort welcomed by their old friends Alison Brown (of Compass Records) and Maura O’Connell, residents of the city. Look for that recording later in the year.
Also, Joanie Madden and her Cherish musicians recorded a soundtrack for the video Memory Brings Us Back for the Aisling Center which is up for a New York Emmy Nomination on April 18. Wish the girls some more luck as the 25th celebration continues all year.
The New DeDanann
AT last summer’s World Fleadh in Castlebar, Co. Mayo there was a great deal of excitement circling around the appearance of the group DeDanann, or more precisely Frankie Gavin and the New DeDanann.
The original DeDanann founded 35 years ago in 1975 in Galway had ceased to exist over five years ago when they disbanded, so Gavin wanted to revive the name on his own and formed his own group with younger musicians Damien Mullane (accordion), Eric Cunningham (drums/flute/whistles), Mike Galvin (bouzouki/guitar) and singer Michell Lally (some of whom had already recorded with him under the name the Hibernian Rhapsody).
But founding members Johnny McDonagh and Alec Finn weren’t breaking open the bubbly to wish Gavin and the new group well under their signature name, and a great furor erupted over who had the rights to the band name in a live and riveting RTE radio talk show just as the band was to debut at the much-hyped Castlebar World Fleadh.
Whatever! Gavin with his customary brio has kept marching to his own beat with his new mates, and you can judge for yourselves on the old versus the new as they have a brief St. Patrick’s Day spin around Boston and New York.
On Monday, March 15 at 9:30 p.m. they have a slot at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette Street; 212-539-8777 or www.joespub.com). On Friday, March 19 they are in Pawling, New York at the Towne Crier Café at 8:30 p.m. (www.townecrier.com or 845-855-1300) and then up to Harvard in Cambridge at the Sanders Theater as the main act of the annual Celtic Sojourn St. Patrick’s Day concert with Brian O’Donovan on Saturday, March 20 at 8 p.m. along with Maeve Gilchrist and Darrol Anger and Tony McManus (wgbh.org).
Speaking of the Towne Crier, the venue has some other interesting acts you might want to see, with the Clancy Tradition annual St. Patrick’s celebration on Saturday, March 13 at 8:30 p.m. led by Eugene Clancy and his family band.
On Sunday, March 14 at 7:30 p.m. a very lively Nova Scotian band POGEY from Antigonish will be there with the usual store of maritimes music and lore to help get you in the mood for the big week. On St. Patrick’s Day itself, the Towne Crier will host Ashley Davis and harpist Cormac de Barra at 7:30 p.m.