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The Blue Idol
Pure glory from its opening moments onwards, this is the album to restore the faith of those who believed that the Donegal-based paragons of traditional music had been treading water for the last few years. Although the impact of their live performances has never ceased to astonish, some had questioned whether commercial considerations had diminished their powers on record. The Blue Idol does not just refute such suggestions, but reinstates Altan at the top of the tree as a band with a purpose and a deceptively simple one at that.
Altan have remained true to their roots over the last twenty years, constructing a consummate amalgam of more familiar Irish jigs and reels with the highlands, Germans and strathspeys common in the North of Ireland, but particularly popular in Donegal with the added essential element, of course, of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s sublime singing in both Irish and English. Instrumental brilliance is prominent throughout The Blue Idol, not least on the set called The Low Highland where the vibrant fiddles of Mairéad and Ciarán Tourish combine with Dermot Byrne’s effortlessly virtuosity on the button accordion to produce music which would turn even restrained dancers into dervishes. These three dominate proceedings, but in the form of Ciarán Curran’s bouzouki and the guitars of Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule’s guitars, Altan possess one of the most subtle, melodic and effective rhythm sections around.
Yet, in some ways, it’s the songs which mark this album as a cracker. Daily Growing sees Mairéad and a spirited Paul Brady swapping verses with abandon. Cuach mo Lon Dubh Buí splendidly pairs Mairéad with her sister Anna on a song reputed to be the favourite of James Joyce while Dolly Parton guests unobtrusively on The Pretty young Girl. A classic, monumental album!
The adjacent photograph of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh was taken at the 2002 Finsbury Park Fleadh and is © Carol Luck 2002.
The title of Altan’s tenth album couldn’t be more apposite if it tried. Singer and fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh has, of course, appeared on all ten and once remarked to this reviewer that the band’s international tours were like carrying a little piece of Donegal around the world. Local Ground serves that purpose for those of us yearning for a glimpse of Errigal and a pint in Tessie’s and offers more than a taste of Donegal for those who’ve never experienced either delight.
Local Ground sees the band in a relaxed frame of mind, confidently harnessing its abilities to present a sumptuous blend of songs in Irish (including three Donegal locals) and English matched by tunes which demonstrate the flowing versatility of Altan’s musicianship. The latter is encapsulated by a rhythmically quirky set kicked off by Bó Mhín na Toitean where Dermot Byrne’s accordion rollicks, frolics and tantalizes to extraordinary effect. The twin fiddles of Ní Mhaonaigh and Ciarán Tourish are spotlighted on a typically effervescent rendition of the popular Donegal reel The Humours of Castlefin and there’s even a rare solo outing for Ciarán Curran’s mandolin on the Peadar Ó Riada jig Sport. As ever, Curran, Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule provide tasteful backing, augmented on occasion by Jim Higgins on percussion and Stephen Cooney’s bass.
This time round there are no guest vocalists (though Carlos Nuñez appears on whistles and gaita), leaving Mairéad to take the full honours and ones which should definitely be accorded for the dazzling opener, Éirigh ‘s cuir ort do chuid éadaigh. Pure joy throughout, Local Ground reveals a band reluctant to rest on its laurels and still capable of producing some of the most inspirational music on the planet.
These two reviews by Geoff Wallis originally appeared in Songlines magazine – www.songlines.co.uk.
Click here to visit Altan’s website.
Some albums immediately bring the words ‘contractual obligation’ to mind and this is one of them. My review copy is from the US former independent Narada label which is part of the Virgin empire which, in turn, is part of ... I’m sure you’re not really bothered. Anyway, it collates fourteen tracks taken from the Virgin albums Another Sky, Blackwater, The Blue Idol and Runaway Sunday. So, by ignoring the five albums which the band recorded for Green Linnet, it can hardly be regarded as a ‘best of’ compilation, but such niceties have never concerned record companies.
Strangely too, the best song on The Blue Idol, where Mairéad and Paul Brady swap verses with enjoyable abandon, Daily Growing, has not been included. Presumably, that’s either because of licensing problems regarding Paul’s participation or because this album was issued shortly after TBI and Virgin did not want to distract attention from its new release.
Then there’s the odd consideration that nobody but Mairéad ever takes the Altan lead vocal spot, not Mark Kelly, not Ciarán Tourish and, perhaps most peculiarly of all, not Dáithí Sproule (and we well know that he can sing). So, in a sense, this becomes Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s solo album, albeit that the band provides ever tasteful backing. Now that’s fine in itself, but Altan’s albums are subtly crafted affairs where her songs and the instrumental tracks are usually arranged with considerable deliberation.
In other words, lumping a substantial number of them together provides only half the picture. Sure, one can marvel at the sheer cogency of the arrangement of Cuach Mo Lon Dubh Buí, but its impact is so much diminished when extracted from the source album.
Equally, when Dolly Parton appears on The Pretty Young Girl, the song just becomes a guest-vocalist exercise when removed from its context and suffers accordingly.
To end on a positive note, there’s much to entice here, but anyone considering purchasing this as an introduction to the band would be well advised to save their money and head for The Blue Idol or Island Angel instead.
4th April, 2005