Altan and Lunasa

The Factory Theatre, March 2

This double shot of Irish music provided living, breathing proof of the idiom’s breadth and malleability. Lunasa showed how feisty and energetic it may be, before Altan dug deep into the tradition – particularly that of Donegal and the north – with a sound defined by the Gaelic singing of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh.

Ni Mahonaigh told us that the use of her native language is dying out, which is a body-blow to Ireland’s rich culture. Just as Italian could have  been invented specifically for opera librettos, the vowel sounds of Gaelic are woven deep into the fabric of Irish music. Magnifying Altan’s distinctiveness Ni Mhaonaigh’s voice has a slightly reedy quality, reminiscent of uilleann pipes. Alas both band and voice were over-amplified, sometimes obscuring the gorgeous lilt of her singing.

This version of the band Ni Mhaonaigh co-founded 27 years ago had two fiddles (one her own), guitar, accordion and bouzouki, putting ample meat on the bones of the up-tempo jigs and reels, although the band’s real forte remains the songs and her plangent voice.

Lunasa 2 res

Lunasa, by contrast, thrived on incorporating scything syncopations into the way the beefed-up rhythms were enunciated, but, crucially, without obscuring the delicacy of the twisting melodies. Bassist Trevor Hutchinson and new guitarist Ed Boyd developed hurtling momentum behind the tight unison playing of Kevin Crawford’s flute and whistles, Sean Smyth’s fiddle and Cillean Vallely’s uilleann pipes, and sometimes it seemed a turbocharger had been switched on as they transitioned from one tune to another. They could also tap all the melancholy of Pierre Bensusan’s The Last Pint (a confronting thought, if ever there was one) with three low whistles, finger-picked guitar and bowed bass.

It seems inevitable that Irish bands are also good for a laugh, and Crawford’s chat was nothing short of hilarious, while Altan’s Ciaran Tourish provided his own wry asides.

For the encores the two bands combined, to lavishly resonant effect on the classic Gleanntain Ghlas’ Ghaoth Dobhair by Ni Mhaonaigh’s late father.