How it’s Irish: Donegal, that’s Irish, right?
Fiddler Des Hurley describes the ideal of an Irish traditional music session as a team sport where all players are aware of every other team member and anticipate each other’s moves and runs. Altan exemplify that in the subtleties of their ensemble playing and that is what makes them such a great live act. Looking at the formation on stage: on the left and right you have the guitar and bouzouki in the calm hands of Dáithí Sproule and Ciarán Curran providing a sensitive and responsive pulse; in the middle you have the twin fiddles of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciarán Tourish playing off each other, with Mairéad’s short-held bow ever primed for attack.
Altan’s sophisticated arrangements are of course another thing entirely to your average session and they are masters of the art, at times using the call and response of the piano accordion of Martin Tourish and the twin fiddles but equally happily creating a rich harmonic texture from all instruments at hand. All this was to the fore in my favorite set of the night at City Winery, which was “The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy)”. Echoes and references abounded in this: there was the crossover into the American tradition ( check out new album “The Widening Gyre,” and our podcast about it) to which Mairéad’s pure, natural voice is particularly well suited; there was a gorgeous fiddle refrain recalling one of Paddy Cronin’s musical nuggets; even the fact that the tune was introduced with an extra name “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” (and it had 2 to begin with) shows how deep the origins.
Then things got delightfully Donegal and family as the musical couple Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh were brought to the stage. Ciarán has that Donegal fiddlers’ knack of being technically exact, fearless and free. Caitlín’s concertina is no less thrilling as she expands perceptions of the instrument. It was her feet that lifted us though in the showpiece “Belfast Hornpipe/Miss McLeod’s” with sublime synchronization of her dancing shoes and Ciarán’s playful fiddle. The gasps were audible.
Photos by Alice Farrell