(Green Linnet, 1992)
There are certain albums that rank somewhere above "excellent," which are almost mandatory pieces of a Celtic music collection. Silly Wizard's Live Wizardry is one. Leahy's debut album is another. And then there's Altan's Harvest Storm.
Altan lays claim to an extremely talented bunch of musicians who keep the instrumental pieces tight and lively. They are, without doubt, among the best ensemble players calling Ireland their home, giving new life to traditional set pieces like "Pretty Peg/New Ships a Sailing/The Bird's Nest/The Man from Bundoran," "Drowsy Maggie/Rakish Paddy/Harvest Storm" and Bog an Lochain/Margaree Reel/The Humours of Westport," as well as originals like guitarist Mark Kelly's "The Snowy Path" and fiddler Paul O'Shaughnessy's pair of jigs, "Seamus O'Shanahan's/Walkin in Liffey Street." The addition of guest dancer Frieda Gray to the second half of "McFarley's/Mill na Maidi (The Crushing of Twigs)" adds extra flair to the lively fiddle reel.
Besides Kelly and O'Shaughnessy, the band includes the incredible Frankie Kennedy on flutes and whistles, Ciaran Tourish on fiddle and whistle and Ciaran Curran on bouzouki and bouzouki-guitar. The occasional overlap of instruments is not a bit overdone; rather, it adds a fullness to Altan's sound which sets them apart from many of their contemporaries in the field and giving them the feel of a top-notch session band -- assuming the session is attended by only the very finest of players.
There's a nice spotlight on Kennedy in the final track, "Dobbin's Flowery Vale," recorded as both an air and reel. Kennedy's reputation as being one of the finest flute and whistle players is well-deserved.
The real defining element of Altan, however, is the voice of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (who fiddles, too).
One of my favorite songs on the album is "Donal agus Morag," a wedding song from Rathlin Island off the coast of County Antrim. Mhaonaigh's vocals (as for most of her songs, sung in Gaelic) are lovely and bright, and the chorus of vocalists joining her for each refrain gives the song a regal air. The lyrics are steeped in tradition, describing the guests and menu of a noble wedding, although only two verses are original. The other two were written by Mhaonaigh's father to complete the song, which had largely been lost over time. The reel which closes off the piece is one of the finest, tightest bits of playing I've heard, and guest bodhranist Donal Lunny adds a solid percussion line to the arrangement.
Another Gaelic song, slow and sweet, is "Mo Choill," which translates to "My Love." The tune is simply arranged, focusing on Mhaonaigh's lovely voice accompanied primarily by guitar. Again, Mhaonaigh is joined on some choruses by her group of backing singers, who add a grand accent to the overall sound. "A Nobleman's Wedding," the only song sung in English in this album, is a mournful tale of love betrayed and love lost -- and it never fails to touch the listener's heart. (Although, to be honest, I'll give the edge on this song to Clandestine, whose version gives the words a more powerful and emotional edge.)
Another high point on an album full of peaks is the song "'Si Do Mhaimeo I," another Gaelic tune from the Connemara Gaeltacht. Guest musician Liam O'Maonlai adds atmosphere with the didgeridoo and Tommy Hayes provides superb percussion to this grimly witty song, which translates to "The Old Hag" and tells the tale of a rich but tight-fisted granny.
Harvest Storm is a must-have for any fan of Irish music. Seek it out and revel in the work of some of the best Celtic musicians on the market today.
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