Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Altan at The Barns: The Wolf Trap Review
The following post is written by Lauren Smith, Wolf Trap's Spring copy writing intern.
“Are you well?” lead singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh asked a slightly subdued audience in her enchanting accent (one that can only belong to someone whose first language is Gaelic) at Tuesday night’s Altan concert at The Barns. The pillar of traditional Irish music then began their opening number, also the first track from their new album Gleann Nimhe (The Poison Glen). The crowd was certainly more responsive to the second inquiry of “Are you well? We hope you’re well!” from the angel-voiced darling of Celtic fiddle, and their energy, as well as the band’s, continued to grow throughout the night.
Most of the material the group played was from their new record, a body of work rife with classic tunes from Celtic greats like O’Carolan, more modern legends like Mhaonaigh’s father, Proínsias, and Altan originals. The concert’s second number gave the audience their first live taste of the force of nature that is Mhaonaigh’s voice, and since “Caitlin Triall,” like much of the concert, was sung completely in Gaelic, the vocal beauty—at once dusky and inarguably powerful as well as high and clear as a bell—captivated their focus.
What is perhaps most intriguing about Irish music is that neither instruments nor voices hit a pitch and stay there, but rather frequently slide gracefully over a range of notes before allowing the word or phrase to find its home, creating intricate melodies in what would be a single note in most other genres. This technique was particularly evident in the sea chanty whose English translation is “White Sails,” the first song of the evening that included Ciarán Tourish’s and Dáithí Sproule’s vocal harmonizing with Mhaonaigh following a blissfully simple guitar intro. The group followed this tune with the first song in English, “The Blackest Crow,” a touchingly poetic American traditional love song. Closing the first set was “Dónal Agus Mórag,” showcasing Mhaonaigh’s true range, from deep and yearning to breezy and clear, and featured accordionist Dermot Byrne, who had been to this point rather quiet.
Following intermission, the group continued gathering steam, alternating between fast and furious jigs and reels and sweet, simple love songs, never ceasing to inspire awe in the unparalleled instrumentalism. It’s hard to pick a highlight of the concert, with so much variety and sheer talent to choose from, but the new album’s closing number, “The House on the Corner,” composed by Sproule, which presented the fullest showcase for the whole band’s ability to play as an infallible ensemble is certainly a contender. I have to say, however, that the encore really got me, a mournful ballad called “Ah Ghealog (The Bunting)” (that was the best example of the trademark lofty, otherworldly voice that has made Mhaonaigh and Altan as a whole one of the most successful traditional Irish bands) followed by a fast-paced, high-spirited dance number that brought two local musicians to the stage and a few audience members to dance in the aisles. The concert’s conclusion brought the entire audience to its feet in appreciation of stellar musicianship and the spirit of the Emerald Isle.