Root down with Altan

By David Kenney

Nowadays, roots music is way too loosely defined. Almost anyone who can pen a half-decent song and play an acoustic guitar gets lumped into this category.

Being categorized and showing true musicianship and showmanship are two different things, however.

Sunday night at the MacEwan Hall Ballroom, Ireland’s Altan gave a true roots show to well, root for. Augmented by two fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and percussion, the group turned the sold-out ballroom into an Irish cultural centre. But this was by no means a St. Paddy’s Day kitchen party.

Throughout the two-hour performance the band deviated between songs to jig to and intimate moments, interrupted only by one reviewer’s coughing fit. Vocalist and fiddler Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh set the twilight tone with her high-pitched crystalline vocals. Her rapport was equally as enchanting.

A storyteller full of finesse, Mhaonaigh traded banter with a delighted crowd.

Her cohorts were also quite charming. Guitarist Daithi Sproule played Mhaonaigh’s sidekick, dueling with the gentlewoman and other band members. The false state of competition didn’t distract from the whole performance though, as each member hit each cue and rhythm with instinct.

Currently touring behind their latest record, Another Sky, it’s obvious the group are seasoned veterans who know the importance of one-another. Their solos did the explaining. Accordion player Demot Byrne’s solo was especially moving, transporting listeners to their own private Ireland.

Part of such a trip was due to an ear-to-the-ground attentive audience. Like the Terri Clark show earlier this year, the crowd had a deer-in-the-headlights look, securing a temporary small club atmosphere. Only the vocally hyperactive

Martin Sexton has matched such a show full of jolting energy and amazing musicianship.

"Relevance is not our strong point but I think relevance had been overrated, " said the bushy-bearded Sproule in a prelude to one song.

How untrue. The closest some so-called Irish bands get to authenticity is their habit for Irish beer. With Altan, you know it’s the real deal. From the humour to the musical passion, the talent is obvious.

Essentially, they’re the next best thing to The Chieftains–no small honour.

As the lights went down and the speakers filtered out the last notes at the ballroom, Altan left a reminder of what roots music really is about.



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