Altan: Widening Gyre

review altan x1 cong

Altan are one of Ireland’s longest lasting bands, 35 years and counting, and the longest running line-up of founding members in Irish music. We confess never having heard of them. (We have heard of equally long-lasting Irish band Aslan, the band random name generator obviously getting stuck at “A” in 1980s Ireland).

Altan specialise in playing Donegal’s traditional music but for this new album they decamped to Nashville, to draw on Appalachian bluegrass. There is a clear bluegrass influence in the guitar, banjo and fiddle playing but it fits in well — bluegrass obviously has its roots in Irish music to begin with. (Indeed, a documentary we heard not so long ago said all modern music was invented in Ireland, with soul, bluegrass and hillbilly all being Irish, which mean rock n roll and everything after were also Irish).

The album title comes from WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”) written after the Great War, but this album is not a bleak commentary on the works of man.

Opener is Maggie’s Pancakes/ Píobaire an Chéide/The Friel Deal (reels), the first a lively Scottish tune composed by fiddler Stuart Morison, once a member of the Tannahill Weavers. They can quote Yeats in the album title all they like, but this reel is just about Maggie making nice pancakes.

No Ash Will Burn is a song from Nashville songwriter Walt Aldridge, who has dozens of hit country songs under his belt. This is slow tune that blends the Irish and the country, though fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, and singer Bruce Molsky — a specialist in old-time music of the Appalachian region — adds a verse and some fiddle to give it the air of Appalachian front porch.

Track three is back to reels with Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches (Lord McDonald’s Reel)/Leslie’s Reel, a track that shows how tunes travel across the Atlantic to Appalachia. It features some mighty fine banjo. After that it’s back to a slow song. You get the picture.

Yeats is celebrated on The White Birds, a poem written by Yeats the day after the great love of his life, Maud Gonne, revolutionary and suffragette, rejected his first marriage proposal. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings.

Overall: a strong album that plays proper traditional Irish tunes without sound twee but — thanks to the Nashville infusion — while sounding fresh and new.

About jerobear

Weekly newspaper editor in Cheshire, England. I blog my editorials and the CDs I write about. I play drums, drink coffee, play music, meditate. I hate filling in forms.

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