TITLE: THE WIDENING GYRE

ARTIST: ALTAN

LABEL: COMPASS RECORDS

RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 20, 2015

By Anya Sturm

Altan - The Widening GyreAltan’s new CD The Widening Gyre is a fantastic collection of traditional Gaelic songs mixed in with Irish jam regulars. The band is joined by many special guests in this collection of upbeat lively jam tunes as well as slower songs sung by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Altan is a traditional Irish band— arguably the most famous one currently playing. It was started in 1987 by Mairéad (rhymes with parade) and her late husband Frankie Kennedy. Mairéad is the daughter of Proinsias Ó Maonaigh, or Francie Moony who also contributed to traditional Irish fiddling.

The CD starts off with an upbeat reel set consisting of Maggie’s Pancakes, Píobaire an Chéide, and The Friel Deal. Maggie’s Pancakes is a local favorite around Los Angeles; The Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles play it frequently as everyone loves playing the hemiola. (A hemiola happens when the melody of the tune goes against the natural beat.) On this CD, Maggie’s Pancakes is played fairly straightforwardly but at the end of the tune as well as in the rest of set there are drones both on the bottom and top. This track also has funky harmonies between Mairéad and special guest Stuart Duncan. Each track has a few special guests, and this one has Alison Brown on banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jim Higgins on bodhrán, Kenny Malone on percussion, and Todd Philips on bass.

The next track has a classic Alltan sound. It is a slow song called No Ash Will Burn. Mairéad and special guest Bruce Molsky take turns singing lead on the verses and Jenee Fleenor joins them on harmony vocals during the chorus.

The CD goes back and forth between slower and faster tunes .The third track is an upbeat more American sounding track than the others. It consists of Buffalo Gals, Leather Britches, and Leslie’s Reel. The band’s accordion player Martin Tourish takes the lead on Buffalo Gals and there is nice blend between the fiddle and the accordion. Buffalo Gals is an American tune that is slightly swung like a hornpipe here. Leather Britches is also a common bluegrass jam favorite that features a solo by Alison Brown on banjo as well as Darol Anger on fiddle.

AltanThere are also some originals on the CD, most of which are instrumental. However, guitarist Dáithí Sproule wrote a melody to go along with traditional lyrics. It is called Lurgy Streams, and is another slow ballad. It starts off with whistle played by band member Ciaran Tourish and finger-picking guitar played by Dáithí. Mairéad sings lead and Dáithí sings harmony. It’s much simpler than most of the tracks on this CD, yet there is the same amount of energy. Because it is such a soothing track from the beginning, I was surprised by the minor guitar is the background. There is enough going on that it is still enjoyable to listen to, but it’s simple enough that it still feels like a lullaby.

My favorite track on this CD is another original. The Triple T or Thomas Tourish’s Tune is written by Ciaran Tourish. It features Darol Anger on fiddle, Alison Brown on banjo, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jim Higgins on bodhrán, Todd Philips on bass, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. This tune feels very heavily influenced by Darol Anger and Sam Bush. By the end, the solos seem to be what you would expect from a Texas-style jam rather than a traditional Irish one. At the beginning though, you can already tell that Darol is featured in it. It starts off with a spooky sounding fiddle and bass sound that happens when you barely touch the bow to the string as well as your left hand. The effect is strengthened when the whistle comes in with a little riff but everything stills feels very distorted and hazy. It’s startling when the melody breaks through with banjo and fiddle, but it’s also a relief.

Overall, this CD is a great mixture of what you would expect from a traditional Irish band combined with American influences. It’s great for everyone although some of the Gaelic ballads are more geared toward Irish music lovers.

Anya Sturm is a middle school student in Santa Monica and likes playing music almost as much as playing soccer. She started playing fiddle at age 3 and has since won first place on fiddle, guitar, and mandolin at the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest, the Goleta Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association, and the Seaside Scottish Fiddle Contest.