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Happy St. Patrick's Week! Altan article in The Straight
Tuesday March 17, 2015

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Happy St. Patrick's Week!

Here is Tony Montague's wonderful interview with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh of Altan from this week's Georgia Straight: 

Altan explores interface between music traditions 



The distance between the windswept northwest coast of Ireland and the mountains of Appalachia is shorter than you might think, musically at least.

When Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh—lead vocalist, fiddler, and founding member of Irish quintet Altan—began touring with the band in the U.S. in the late ’80s, she was amazed to hear songs and tunes almost identical to those she learned growing up in the Gaelic-speaking village of Gweedore in County Donegal.

As Ní Mhaonaigh and Altan continued to visit the U.S. regularly they developed friendships with a number of major artists. In 1994 country diva Dolly Parton invited her to Tennessee to sing on the album Heartsongs: Live From Home.

“It meant a lot of rehearsals with the likes of the Del McCoury Band, and Alison Krauss and Union Station,” Ní Mhaonaigh recalls, reached at a hotel in Annapolis, Maryland. “We got to know those people over that time, and realized we had so many tunes and songs in common.

“A few years later Dolly asked us to do her Little Sparrow album with her in L.A. Then we had her singing ‘The Pretty Young Girl’ on our own album Blue Idol [in 2002]. We were born and bred in Donegal, and we play these same tunes. When I sang Dolly’s version of ‘Barbara Allen’ to my father, he said ‘That’s exactly the same as your grandmother had.’ ”

On the recently released Widening Gyre, Altan is once more exploring the interface of Irish and Appalachian music. The band recorded the album in Nashville with a host of American friends and guests—including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Alison Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and progressive-bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger.

“Darol’s a chameleon—he can blend into anything he wants to,” says Ní Mhao­naigh. “He’s such a creative musician—he really coloured the tunes. And when Stuart Duncan arrived—the other great fiddler from Nashville on the album—he was saying ‘There are already two fiddlers, what am I going to do?’ Next thing, he came in and gave exactly what we wanted—colour and variety. We’ve made many lifelong friends like that through music, and that’s what Widening Gyre celebrates.”

The title is taken from “The Second Coming”, one of the best-known poems by Irish writer W.B. Yeats. It has a particular aptness and resonance for Ní Mhaonaigh.

“I’ve always been a huge fan. I love his romanticism, and he was such a part of the revival of our culture, and part of the 1916 Easter Rising. The poem was written after the [First] World War when he felt things were falling apart, life as he knew it. But then—‘the widening gyre’. That image of spiralling energy is so strong, and it just brought everything in. My image of the album is the widening circle of music and friends, and how our lives have evolved from that little beginning to this universal thing that’s happening.”

Altan performs at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver on Thursday (March 19).


And the Irish music certainly doesn't stop tonight! Far from it! Donegal's sensational band Altan play North Vancouver's Centennial Theatre this Thursday at 8pm. There are still plenty of good seats available for this show. Call 604-984-4484 to get yours now, or buy them at Prussin MusicAltan are touring in support of a great new CD, The Widening Gyre, which was recorded in Nashville with some of America's finest bluegrass pickers and country and folk singers. It's a celebration of the ties that bind the traditional music of Ireland and the Appalachians. Wonderful stuff! While there are a lot of guests, it most definitely sounds like Altan - the heart and soul of Donegal music - with some soaring melodies, sumptuous fiddling, and the gorgeous voice of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. Mairead's teenage daughter Nia might also join in on vocals and fiddle on the night! The tour also celebrates the legacy of founding member Frankie Kennedy, who sadly succumbed to cancer 20 years ago. It's been 16 years since Altan last played at The Rogue and we have been trying to lure them back ever since! A succession of brilliant albums has filled the intervening years and we are dying to hear the new accordion maestro, Martin Tourish, in the band for the first time on this tour.  For more information click here

The Sweet Lowdown
We take a slight lateral diversion to the realm of old time fiddle music with the lovely Victoria trio 
The Sweet Lowdown on Friday night at St. James Hall. I took this photo of them at the Mission Folk Music Festival curtain-raiser last July. They have just released their 3rd CD, Chasing The Sun, and you couldn't wish to hear more luscious harmonies than this! They all write songs - and tunes - as well! They have been touring the UK and Europe a lot since Mission, and have won awards and been featured on BBC TV and Radio as well as being feted in fRoots magazine, a vital source of information and inspiration to my show since I began presenting on CiTR in 1985. Shanti Bremer (banjo), Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) and Amanda Blied (guitar) are three young women with German heritage, but listening to their music you'd think they could be from Tennessee or North Carolina - with Canadian voices and sensibilities, of course! More details here
On Sunday March 22nd we feature more scintillating Irish music with the sensational young quintet, Goitse (pron: g'wicha), from Limerick. They come from the fertile ground of the University of Limerick School of Traditional Music and Dance, and have just launched their 3rd CD, Tall Tales & Misadventures. Aine McGeeney (fiddle) sings beautifully in English and Gaelic, and they feature a powerful rhythm section of bodhran and guitar, as well as virtuosi on mandolin / banjo and accordion / piano. This show is the final date on their inaugural Canadian tour and will be some party, as they have plenty of friends - mostly recently arrived young Irish workers and students - out here on the left coast. If you bring your Altan ticket stub to this show you'll save $5 on admission at the door! Click here for tickets and information
Coming Up
Unfortunately our next scheduled concert - with Oliver Swain, Ben Sollee & Emily Braden (March 28th) - has been postponed until later in the year, when they will have an album to promote.
We are about to add a night of Cajun and Zydeco music with Louisiana's The Revelers on Sunday May 17th, and there are some fabulous concerts coming up over the next couple of months. Full details are on our website One (actually two) to look out for is the return of Tom Russell (June 26 and 27) with an epic double CD The Rose of Roscrae. Check out this video for a sneak preview!
Now Hear This!


Radio Rogue is flying high with a new playlist of well over 100 songs by performers coing up at The Rogue between now and the mid-August visit of UK roots music giants Oysterband. You can also tune in to The Edge On Folk on Saturday from 8am to noon on CiTR fm 101.9 and for music by all these performers - and so much more!


 Save St. James

Community Square

The future of St. James Community Square - and of course St. James Hall - remains in doubt. Please sign the online petition and write letters of support - and we hope you can pledge some financial support as the campaign heats up to save this vital venue and community centre.