Altan played a high-energy show of jigs and reels and American bluegrass at the Barns at Wolf Trap. They may have also invented a new genre of music called “Greengrass.” For their latest album, they travelled to Nashville to partner with Bluegrass musicians Garry West and Alison Brown, who were on hand at the concert to recreate the alchemy between Irish folk and American Bluegrass.
All night they traded songs and reels, playing the same song in the Irish tradition and then in the Bluegrass. They branched out into old favorites like “White Birds.” They also performed many songs composed by band members like “The Long Road Home” by newest member Martin Tourish on accordion.
As Altan co-founder Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh said, “Let’s melt the snow outside!” She plays fiddle with lyrical passion on many songs she wrote like the addictive “Samhradh.” She also sings with a distinctive, powerful voice on songs like “No Ash Will Burn” by Walt Aldridge.
Four musicians round out Altan – and each got a moment in the spotlight to play a song they composed or crack a few jokes. Dáithí Sproule helped developed the tuning used by most guitarists today in Irish bands and still rocks out on the instrument. Ciaran Tourish switched it up between tin whistle, flute, and fiddle. He was deadly fast on Irish and Bluegrass tunes like “Temperance Reel” and had the audience clapping and stomping. Ciarán Curran is a master of the bouzouki. It was clear on songs like “Maggie’s Pancakes” and “The House Carpenter” that they’ve been playing together for decades.
Allison Brown on banjo and Garry West on bass joined them for many numbers. Brown can play the banjo like few others can and my favorite moment came when she and Martin Tourish tackled “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance, though this time it was dueling banjo and accordion. I don’t know who won, but it was a lot of fun.
One of the songs they tackled in Gaelic was “Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh.” Mairéad translated that roughly as, “Everything you do in life, do it well.” It’s clear they live by this philosophy and one of the things Altan does very well is put on a rollicking good show.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.