Altán: still buzzing after all these years

The trad supergroup played a stormer at the Empire Music Hall on Friday night ...

Altan - Ciaran Curran, Mark Kelly, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Martin Tourish agus Clare Friel
Altan - Mark Kelly, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Martin Tourish and Clare Friel with Ciaran Curran just out of shot!

I really didn’t want to go to the Altán concert at the Empire music Hall on Friday night, the first gig in this year’s Belfast Tradfest.

Hadn’t I been listening to the teenage Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh since she sat with Frankie Kennedy in the old Cumann Chluain Ard in in Hawthorn Street in the 1980s, under the watchful eye of Albert Fry? And hadn’t I been attending gigs of the band the young couple formed ever since?

Forty years is a long time to be listening to one band but I did want to hear the harpist Michael Rooney play and so I went with a friend to the wonderful Botanic Avenue venue that is the Empire, intending to leave early if I got the chance.

However, all that changed!

Michael Rooney was as good as I was expecting. A beautiful player of traditional tunes, he is also a master composer, and he treated us with some well-known traditional tunes, such as Sí Bheag Sí Mhór and his own competitions.

The beautiful melodic lines and counter melodies and even percussion coming from the ancient symbol of Ireland hushed a full auditorium in a bravado set that was all too short.

I look forward to listening to Michael again in the near future.

Then along came Altán. If I was expecting the quintet to be showing signs of their longevity, they were quickly dispelled with an opening set that raised the roof.

Boasting a new member, Clare Friel, the quintet started off at a blistering pace delivering the Donegal style of fiddle playing that is renowned throughout the world. They had the audience gyrating in their seats from the word go.

But of course, Altán aren’t just a hell for leather kind of band.

One of trad and folk music’s great treasures is Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s voice. I’ve witnessed her singing bring tears to people’s eyes right in front of me.

Her voice is still a thing of exquisite beauty, and she treated the full house to songs such as Tá Mo Chleamhnas á Dhéanamh, Bacach Shíl Andaí, Dúlaman and the superb An Ghealóg, written by band member and accordionist, Martin Tourish.

With Michael Rooney joining in with Mairéad, Clare, Martin, Ciarán Curran and Mark Kelly, the now sextet played with such virtuosity, each member adding colour to the musical tapestry.

It was a show of darkness and light, gossamer lightness and the energy of an approaching train.

People sang along, attempted to dance the Highland, clapped and roared and finally, applauded heartily at the end of the show.

Altán, how could I have doubted you?