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It’s All About Altan

By Paul Keating

THE most revealing clue? The show was virtually sold out in advance, so everyone was seated well before the conventional 8 p.m. start last Saturday at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s upper West Side. 

When World Music Institute (WMI) Director Robert Browning remarked that the show starring Ireland’s most dynamic traditional music band, Altan, would be starting on time, it signaled that something was unusual about the night.

An unrecognizable quiet accompanied all the selections in the first half, interrupted only by earnest and well-earned applause as the band played with the crispness that we’ve come to expect from the seasoned Altan quintet over the years. At intermission, a walk around the hall revealed few familiar faces among the over 800 people who attended the spectacular concert on a prime weekend night before St. Patrick’s Day.

Altan – with a big assist from WMI – had sold out the large hall without any significant reliance on an Irish audience. That mirrored some other intriguing concerts like Karan Casey at the Blarney Star show with NYU just the night before and Martin Hayes the week before at the Jersey Shore.

Perhaps the bloom isn’t off the Riverdance rose just yet. All of Ireland’s top trad acts invaded the U.S., and many of its first rate venues, suggesting that Celtic music acts are still hot commodities. U.S. tours are a given for any professional Celtic act, but it could be that the American audience – rather than just the Irish ethnic enclaves – may be more receptive to the increasingly talented touring acts. 

That audience is reached by relying on arts organization like WMI (www.worldmusicinstitute.org), led by Browning and his wife Helene. Since 1985 they have been presenting musical acts from over 70 countries in a variety of settings. They enjoy Celtic music along with other genuine folk music and the best Celtic acts have benefited from their broader exposure to WMI listeners.

Last Saturday Altan was at the top of their form, meeting people who were eager and open to hear new sounds. It was clearly a win-win experience all the way around.

Stage savvy Altan specialize in music from Donegal, including songs in the Irish language lovingly delivered by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, one of Ireland’s truly great singers. By the end of the second half they had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand and relishing every well chosen bit.

The band has always taken a collegial approach to displaying the talents of its respective members and those fortunate enough to be seated in the hall this night would see both the sum and expertise of each of the Altan parts that make it one of the tighter bands in any genre.

Daithi Sproule, based in the U.S. and a regular part of the U.S. tours (Mark Kelly does the European work usually), sparkled on guitar and vocals, along with Altan founding member Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, who was solid as always. Dermot Bryne’s sensitive accordion work, meanwhile, is a key link or catalyst to the whole musical presentation.

The centerpiece of Altan is the driving fiddles of Ni Mhoaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish, who have brought the wild and varying tunes and tempos of their native Donegal to the forefront in stages around the world as they play off one another in a counterpoint style that captures the essence of Ireland’s northern most county. 

Not to be overlooked is the winsome personality of the band whose sense of humor on or off stage has long been an incalculable asset for bringing the audience totally under their spell. The verbal interplay between Mairead, Tourish and Sproule is as honest as it is quick-witted and not prone to hackneyed stage patter.

At one point Mairead, attempting to embolden the audience to dance, said that Tourish would have to buy them all a drink at the interval to help accomplish that. Tourish quickly jumped in to say “right, but one drink for the lot of you,” to avoid taking a big hit in his pocketbook. This was not a dancing crowd but it was one who bought Altan’s act in full measure, giving them two standing ovations. When encouraged to sing by Mairead they delivered the chorus loudly and on key to “Green Grow the Laurel O!” like the veteran folk music audience they appeared to be.

Undoubtedly Altan gained many new fans this night and will probably see more of their Irish fans this weekend at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 20 at 8 p.m. They are in Morristown, New Jersey the following night at 7 p.m. with a show for the Irish American Cultural Institute at the Community Theater (http://www.iaci-usa.org/altan).

Next on tap for the World Music Institute’s Celtic spotlight is the Battlefield Band, which for 32 years has been one of Scotland’s most enduring folk acts, with founding member Alan Reid still holding it together. The band includes current members Mike Katz (pipes and whistle), an L.A. native who has lived in Scotland almost 20 years. Then there’s Alastair White, an amazing 20 year-old fiddler and piper from the Isle Of Lewis, and an Irishman, Pat Kilbride, who is in his second tour of duty with the Battlefield Band after rejoining them in 2002.

If that name seems familiar it should as the County Kildare native from Castledermot lived in New York from 1988 to 1998 and fronted the Kips Bay Ceili Band with John Whelan during that time. It was a memorable decade as Kilbride gigged with many of the New York area’s rising stars who were ready to break into the professional ranks like Whelan, Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers and Jerry O’Sullivan, giving him a new appreciation for Irish traditional music.

The Battlefield Band will appear on March 26 at Sharp Theater at Symphony Space at 8 p.m. For tickets and information call 212-545-7536. They also appear as part of the Nassau Community College Folk Festival on March 24 in Garden City, Long Island.

Contact at fromthehob@aol.com


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