Altan at Massey Hall

Altan were one of the first truly traditional groups I came to love, and they will always be one of my favorites! I hadnít seen Altan in five years or so–last time was at the World Theater in St. Paul–so this evening was a great treat, and anticipated with bated breath. This concert was also a benefit for the Ireland Fund of Canada, an organization that promotes cooperation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and seemed to draw many folks from the Irish expatriate community in Toronto, as well as other diehard Altan fans. Massey Hall is a wonderful theatre in what Iíll call the old style–minimal lobbies, ticket booth opening to the outdoors–but a grand room that has aged well over its life. It is a popular place for folk musicians with a following when they play Toronto–Iíve seen both the Chieftains and Bruce Cockburn at Massey Hall.

Fiddler Pierre Shrier and his band opened, bringing a warm Canadian feel to the evening, and bringing a bit of Quebec and the Maritimes into the mix. This type of Canadian folk music, a mixture of Celtic and French traditions, always takes me back to the wonderful folk festivals here in Canada where I first heard it. Iím sure this warm and congenial music conjures up other images–kitchen parties and the like. The lineup consisted of a keyboardist/step dancer, bass player, guitar player, and mandolinist/tin whistle player. Schrier has recently completed an album with Altanís accordion player, Dermot Byrne, who came out and performed a few pieces from this collaboration. If what I heard onstage is any indication, this would be a great addition to my CD collection, as both players seemed to blend effortlessly, while setting a fast and furious pace for the tunes. The tin whistle player contributed one song, which unfortunately seemed a bit ponderous and sentimental, but it was the only clunker in an otherwise delightful opening set. For several of these numbers, step dancers–in both Irish and Canadian styles–appeared onstage, to the delight of the audience and performers.

The crowd was excited and enthusiastic when Altan took the stage, and the band seemed equally happy to be playing for this occasion. Mind you, the rest of their visit was filled with playing for sessions and amongst friends. Several members of Altan, as well as Pierre Schrier, had joined the session at Dora Keoghís Pub the previous evening, drawing many players as well as a packed house. Great fun, although I must confess that I didnít make it until closing time! Following the gig, rumour has it that the band kept going at P.J. OíBrienís, located downtown, close to Massey Hall. The sessions are wonderful for enthusiasm and some great tunes.

I really love hearing Altanís songs–both Mairead’s singing and speaking voice are delightful, and she adds a definite touch of class to the proceedings. As well, the lads create some nice backing harmonies when singing the on the refrains; this may not be strictly traditional, but it is certainly enjoyable when Altan does it. I canít translate Maireadís Irish songs or between song banter (when she spoke in Irish), so Iíll focus on the English language portions of the show. I found the Irish songs enjoyable, but without the titles and meanings itís difficult to write about them!

Altanís lineup for this evening was Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh on fiddle and vocals; Dermot Byrne on accordion; Ciaran Tourish on fiddle, tin whistle and backing vocals; Mark Kelly on guitar and backing vocals; and Daithi Sproule on guitar and backing vocals. The group was short one member, as Ciaran Curran had to remain at home.

They played so fast! Listening to Altan burst into these incredible fast sets is probably a bit humbling for many of the players in the audience, and I canít help but think that they enjoy this–just as they obviously take joy in playing together. Perhaps itís a relief to be playing so well with their peers. Or perhaps itís (friendly ) competition between band members–there is a certain ferocity as Altan launch into their sets that occasionally comes through on their recorded material. Or perhaps I have a good imagination. Whatever the source, it works brilliantly.

I believe that some of the instrumental sets came from their most recent album, Another Sky, as did several of the songs. One song in Irish was dedicated to the eveningís host and a prominent member of the local Irish music community, Daithi Connaughton–about a man who asks another to find him a bride. It was lovely, but more than that I canít say. Two other songs deserve special mention. “So Lang AíGrowing,” about a very young husband struck down before he reaches adulthood, was absolutely lovely. So was Robert Burnsí “Green Grow the Rushes,” which appears on Another Sky. For this one, the band invited the audience to sing along.

The final encore set was played by both bands, and included all 3 of the step dancers who had appeared occasionally over the course of the evening. All in all, this was a great evening, from one of the finest Irish traditional ensembles of this or any other era.

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 7, 2002)

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About Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she’s been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it’s Her Path. She’s deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species.

Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities — like Shooglenifty or Kila — or that energizes traditional tunes with today’s political or personal issues — like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can’t tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists — always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.