• Artist: Altan
  • Year: 2015
  • Label: Compass Records

The Widening Gyre

  • Altan are excited and energised in anticipation of their latest release, The Widening Gyre. The title is borrowed from W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming.

    With renewed energy and introducing new band member, Martin Tourish on accordion, the band recorded in Nashville to collaborate with long time friends and guests to bring this album to the world.

    “The music on this album examines the lifecycle of Altan by exploring the influence of Appalachian music on Irish music,” says lead vocalist, fiddler, and founding member Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan’s new studio album The Widening Gyre.

    After nearly 35 years together—the longest running lineup of founding members in Irish music—the members of Altan were ready to flex their musical boundaries when they started talking to Compass co-founder Garry West about the direction for their latest project. With Garry in the producer’s chair and many good friends in the studio, Altan fused the traditional Irish music that they are known for, namely Donegal fiddling and Gaelic singing traditions, with American roots music, particularly that of the Appalachian bluegrass fiddle.

    “Garry steered the band in the studio to open up musically while somehow managing to help us keep the integrity of Altan intact,” said Mairéad of Garry West’s production. Recording in Nashville for only the second time and the first time for a full album, the band was able to gather many of the roots musicians they’ve met over their thirty years together, including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Compass co-founder Alison Brown. “We’ve made lifelong friends through music. The circle has expanded over the years, and our new album celebrates those relationships.”

    The list of guests on The Widening Gyre is as diverse as it is impressive. Mary Chapin Carpenter, a friend of the band since the ‘90s, lent her vocals to the song “White Birds” to create a lush, meditative reimagining of the W.B. Yeats poem about being a bird on the sea, an appropriate metaphor for a band who has musically and physically crossed the Altantic in the making of the album.

    Eddi Reader, “an amazing singer and very generous person,” says Mairead, offers her angelic backing vocals to “Far Beyond Carrickfinn.” Altan has played concerts with Reader before and they were delighted to finally have the Glasgow native join them in the studio.

    Altan borrowed the mournful waltz “No Ash Will Burn” from the legendary Nashville songwriter Walt Aldridge. Mairead’s crystalline vocals unlock the Celtic undertones of the song while standing in stark contrast to the plaintive baritone of Bruce Molsky, a long time friend of the band and well-known old-time fiddler and singer.

    The bluegrass presence shows itself most clearly on “Buffalo Gals” and “Thomasino (Thomas Tourish’s Tune),” a lively fiddle song written by Altan’s own Ciaran Tourish. Ciaran is joined by bluegrass greats Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Todd Phillips, Bryan Sutton, and Darol Anger.

    Mairead gushes about Anger: “His unique approach gives a different color to the music which opens up amazing possibilities with Irish traditional music. He is a true artist with that fiddle!” She also declares Duncan to be, “a fiddler’s fiddler! He can create so many amazing variations on that instrument, it’s unreal!”

    O’Brien duets on “The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy),” a track which spotlights the shared musical roots of Irish and Appalachian music with references to both of these historical songs. O’Brien is best known for his work with Hot Rize, but like many dedicated bluegrass musicians, has shown a deep interest in Celtic music.

    The Widening Gyre straddles time as it manages to remind listeners of the ancient bond between Irish and Appalachian music while at the same time breaking new ground through collaborations between masters of American roots music and Celtic music.

    “The title The Widening Gyre appeals to us and depicts the spiral of life, widening and embracing the new. It has an innate energy. We think that idea is reflected in the album’s music,” says Mairéad.

    The Widening Gyre is a compelling development in Altan’s story proving that they are still growing as artists, even after so many years together.

  • The Irish Post

    This latest release from Donegal trad stars Altan was recorded in Nashville with several guests from the Americana music world.

    The result is a really nicely balanced album featuring 14 tracks where Co. Donegal meets the parts of 13 states that make up Appalachia — musically speaking.

    Altan have been together for almost 35 years and the time was right to explore beyond the pure Irish traditional boundaries. They have managed to do this quite skillfully — due in no small part to the production skills of Gary West — while retaining the core sound that is their trademark.

    The fusion of Irish and Appalachian with talented guests such as Americans Jerry Douglas, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky and Glasgow’s Eddi Reader among others combine to produce an album of pure quality.

    The Widening Gyre (the title is taken from W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming) shows the connection between Celtic and bluegrass music with both genres benefitting from the natural alliance.

    A great album from a great band who will be touring Britain in May.

    — Joe Giltrap, The Irish Post.

    The Arts Desk

    Taking its title from the opening line of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming, this new album from legendary traditional Irish band Altan sees them decamp to Nashville for an imaginative, celebratory exploration of the links between traditional Irish and American roots music. It also allows them to collaborate with many of the musical friends they’ve made along their 30-plus years journey.

    Listeners looking for the uniquely driving tune sets that Altan are famous for have plenty to get their teeth into, not least “Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches/Leslie’s Reel”, which includes a bracing gear change from the old-timey opening tune to the two reels that follow, courtesy of some nifty five-string banjo from Alison Brown. Switching between D and A major, the last tune of guitarist Mark Kelly’s jig set, “The Gravediggers”, is a particular delight, channelling that kind of joyous quality that Altan can seemingly tap into at will. Fiddle player Ciaran Tourish keeps the revelry going with “The Triple T” which features some lovely, fluid dobro work from Jerry Douglas.

    Captivating quieter moments include the slow reel “Samhradh”, penned by Altan’s founder, fiddle player and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, guitarist Dáithí Sproule’s gorgeous “A Tune for Mairéad and Anna Ní Mhaonaigh”, plus the bittersweet “The Road Home” by new recruit, piano accordion player Martin Tourish.

    Thanks to Ní Mhaonaigh’s indescribably beautiful voice, songs occupy a special place on any Altan album, and The Widening Gyre is an absolute treasure trove, from the old-timey waltz “No Ash Will Burn” (a duet with Bruce Molsky) to the stunning arrangement of “Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh”. Mary Chapin Carpenter joins Ní Mhaonaigh on a heart-melting duet, “White Birds”, while the use of John Doherty’s reel as an instrumental interlude in “The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy)” is a lovely nod to one of the band’s most important touchstones.

    In addition to the crystalline beauty of “Cúirt Robin Finley” and “Lurgy Streams”, Ní Mhaonaigh’s soaring, soul-stirring vocals on “Far Beyond Carrickfinn”, with the subtlest backing vocals from Eddie Reader, is one of the most touching things you’ll hear this year.

    Peter Quinn, The Arts Desk