November CD Reviews

Altan, “The Gap of Dreams” • One of Donegal’s greatest natural resources returns to the firmament with this, its 13th studio album. Where Altan’s previous release, “The Widening Gyre” (2015), was Irish-Americana fusion (with guest stars like Alison Brown, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boston’s own Darol Anger), “The Gap of Dreams” is a paean to the group’s birthplace and celebrates the indispensability of music, songs, dance, and stories to past generations coping with the demands of rural life, as well as famine, conflict and emigration.

In the interim between “Gyre” and “Gap,” with the departure of fiddler Ciaran Tourish, the band has become a quintet, which puts the focus more than ever on the band’s co-founder – and in many ways its heart and soul – Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. She, along with accordionist Martin Tourish, carry most of the instrumental sets and if the sound isn’t as full as it was in past incarnations of Altan, it’s still got plenty of heft. Small wonder, though, when you’ve also got Ciarán Curran (bouzouki), Dáithí Sproule (guitar), and Mark Kelly (guitar) in your crew.

Ní Mhaonaigh and Tourish are at their most robust on tracks like the set of reels “Seán sa Cheo/Tuar/Oíche Fheidhmieúil (A Spirited Night),” the latter two composed by Tourish (“A Spirited Night” is an expression unique to the Donegal Gaeltacht), and another trio that’s about as good a primer there is for Donegal fiddle, “The Tullaghan Lasses/The Cameronian/The Pigeon on the Gate.” Their fretted-string colleagues also get some well-deserved attention, with Curran taking the lead – supported by some outstanding guitar backing – on the slow reel “The Piper in the Cave,” which is followed by the jig “An Ghaoth Aniar Aneas (South-West Wind)”; Kelly is in the spotlight on his composition, “Port Alex.”

An especially pleasing revelation on the album’s opening track might be termed Altan: The Next Generation, as Ní Mhaonaigh’s daughter Nia Byrne appears on fiddle, playing a jig she composed, while Kelly’s son Mark is featured on concertina on his own “The Beekeeper.”

No drop-off in quality on the vocal tracks here: Ní Mhaonaigh enriches the well-known “Month of January” (from the repertoire of the great Paddy Tunney), and “Dark Inishowen,” a Donegal song of characteristically haunting splendor. There are also four Gaelic songs, including one from her childhood, “Níon a’ Bhaoigheallaigh,” and “An Bealach Seo ‘Tá Romham (This Road Ahead of Me),” written by Clannad’s Moya Brennan.
Capping off the album in brilliant style is “Fare Thee Well, a Stór,” written by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin (and set to the tune of Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson’s “Da Slockit Light”), which Ní Mhaonaigh graces with a sweet, not saccharine, air of regret, enhanced by a gentle chorus from the rest of the band.

The phrase “The Gap of Dreams” is taken from a Francis Carlin poem, in which he writes, “The Gap of Dreams is never shut” – a reference to the portal to the mystical “Otherworld which has long nurtured the music, folklore and popular imagination of Donegal. Altan’s reference to it here is an affirmation, that no matter where their musical travels take them, geographically or creatively, they are always rooted to that much-loved in-between place. []

We Banjo 3, “Haven”
• With their fourth studio album, the Galway quartet (obligatory disclaimer: Yes, there are four of them, but only two actually play banjo; also, the banjos in question are the four-string tenor variety, played with a plectrum, not the finger-picked five-string kind) continues to carve out and consolidate its territory in the “Celtgrass” genre they’ve championed for the half-dozen-or-more years they’ve been together: a shrewdly, ingeniously assembled mix of Irish and American folk, both in form and content.

In more recent years, though, brothers Enda and Fergal Scahill and David and Martin Howley have shifted toward the Americana end of the spectrum, a movement which included a geographical component: “Haven” was recorded in the US, with Bryan Sutton – a bluegrass-style guitarist who’s played with Ricky Skaggs – serving as a co-producer. This transition has seen WB3 emphasize its own material rather than traditional tunes and songs, or covers of, for example, Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin’s “Long Black Veil” and Guy Davis’ “We All Need More Kindness in This World.” In particular, the band’s focus has been on songwriting in a folk-rock-pop idiom that’s drawn comparisons to Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers. The result is a sound that is definitely hook-laden and might be described as, yes, more “mainstream.”

Here’s the thing, though: These guys are so darn good at this stuff. The sheer ability, the tightness of their playing, the force of personality – all those qualities that have brought so many admirers into the WB3 tent are still in evidence, even if the material isn’t as uniformly strong as before. David Howley’s singing remains a key asset: He can project vulnerability without sounding pitiable or maudlin, as evidenced by “Don’t Let Me Down” – not a rendition of the Lennon-McCartney hit but in a similar vein – or “War of Love,” which makes a persuasive case for not attending your ex-love’s wedding (guest accompanying vocalist Sierra Hull strengthens the argument); and he can deliver on the uplifting, feel-good/do-good songs, such as “Pack It Up,” “Light in the Sky” – which touches on the experiences of immigrants and refugees – and “Hold Onto Your Soul.” His bandmates also deserve credit for their fine vocal harmonies.

The album’s instrumental tracks – all four comprising band compositions – are as dazzling and intricate as ever, and uphold WB3’s brand of Irish-Americana meld: Enda Scahill (banjo), Fergal Scahill (fiddle, bodhran, percussion) and Martin Howley (mandolin, banjo), along with David Howley on guitar, effectively blur the distinctions between traditions and styles, often in the same set. “Dawn Breaks,” for example, starts off with an Irish-style jig, segues into a sauntering, bluegrass-like 4/4 tune, and then a breakneck reel which, toward the end, lets up a bit as the band creates a repeating riff from the tune’s B part, before resuming full speed. Listen to “Granny’s Bonnet,” the second half of the medley “Sugar House,” and you’ll hear Enda playing an old-time/bluegrass-style variation alongside Fergal’s more Celticesque fiddling. “Annabelle’s Cannon” has a similarly hybrid feel to it, as does the waltz “Marry Me Monday,” highlighted by Martin’s mandolin duet with cellist Erin Snedecor.

Speaking of guest musicians, it’s worth noting that, as on their two previous albums, WB3 once again utilizes brass but doesn’t overdo it; the trumpet, sax ,and trombone appear on four tracks, including the title song and (with great effect) “Dawn Breaks.”

We Banjo 3 strikes one as a band that, well-established though it may be, is still contemplating where Celtgrass can take them. “Haven” doesn’t necessarily represent that ultimate destination. []