25th Anniversary Celebration
(Compass, 2010)

I suppose 25 years as one of Ireland's premiere Irish traditional bands has earned Altan a little slack. After all, even the most accomplished of musicians must be allowed the occasional slip in judgment.

And, while we should encourage musicians to experiment and sometimes grow beyond a pure traditional sound, I find myself hoping Altan learned from this endeavor and never does anything like it again.

I'm speaking, of course, of Altan's latest CD release, which coincides with their 23rd anniversary as a band and, thus, earned for itself the somewhat lackluster (and slightly premature) title of 25th Anniversary Celebration. Woohoo!

Altan, founded in 1987 by Belfast flute/tin whistle player Frankie Kennedy and Donegal fiddler/vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, has made its bread and butter on the strength of Ni Mhaonaigh's strong voice and the band's brilliant instrumental arrangements. Despite the tragic, early death of Kennedy in 1994, the band has soldiered on; its current lineup, besides Ni Mhaonaigh, is Dermot Byrne (accordion), Ciaran Curran (bouzouki), Mark Kelly (guitar), Daithi Sproule (guitar) and Ciaran Tourish (fiddle).

These guys can make some music, let me tell you. But for Celebration, they muddied the waters by recording with the Dublin-based RTE Concert Orchestra. And, while it might still be "in" to record symphonic versions of legendary rock music -- although I am at a loss to name a symphonic album I truly enjoyed more than the source material it covered -- the concert violin does not stand up well on a foundation of Irish fiddle.

The result falls somewhere between soft music for Irish elevators and a lackluster movie soundtrack. It's not too bad if you turn it way down and keep your focus elsewhere, but Altan does not deserve background status. Let's hope this mighty band returns to the studio soon -- and leaves the orchestra at home.

review by
Tom Knapp

17 April 2010

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