Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Music: Altan

Top listening this week: Altan, John Hartford, Adam and the Ants, The Smiths, and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. Since The Staggerer's released our CD last night, I decided to go the celtic route.

Here's Altan with reels from John Doherty.

Last week, I briefly lamented the end of the experimentation in British folk rock. The 90s saw the same thing happen again as a pan-celtic genre developed. Altan didn't arrive on the scene as early as the Bothy Band or Planxty, but they forged their own highly influential sound and repertoire made distinct by the influence of Donegal traditional fiddle playing and by the unique lineup: the twin fiddling of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Paul O'Shaughnessy, Frankie Kennedy's flute and his understated harmonies, the propulsive rhythm section in Ciarán Curran and Mark Kelly, and after Kennedy's death, the addition of Dermot Byrne on accordion. Altan's not-so-secret weapon was the infectiously joyous voice of Ni Mhaonaigh, often joined by the voices of the lads to good effect.

In its first ten years, Altan was the sort of band where the combined strengths of the members together created something greater than a simple sum of the parts. They explored new and exciting textures. The band's work mirrored what was just begin to stir in Americana/bluegrass at the time. Sadly, just like the American counterparts, Altan's efforts culminated in creating a new generic sound due in part to the sudden and unexpected commercial potential of Irish music following Riverdance, but along the way inspired virtuoso upstarts in this new subgenre, such as Solas.

Altan and I fell out with 2000's Another Sky, which I no longer even own a digital copy of. I remember feeling things had become too bland, too predictable, and the guests - Jerry Douglas, Bonnie Rait, the string section - too emblematic of that "yes, we are trying to get spotlighted by NPR" attitude. I get the impression that, if it had been released a year later, it would have featured the O Brother style cover art that dominated folk and bluegrass music artwork for the next five years.

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