An old friend returns….

January 25, 2012 at 7:26 am (By Ron)

One of the things I always liked to do is to follow a band, especially a band that you see up close in a relatively smaller venue.
I have several of these favorites, most of whom I’ve  seen at the wonderful Ark venue, which has moved around Ann Arbor in several places before their excellent present location downtown.  As I’ve gotten older the worst part of the place is the steep climb of stairs, done as quickly as possible to get ahead of the oncoming hordes.  As is my wont, I always try to sit up front, as close to the band as I can get.  That alone is its own special experience.
I was completely unfamiliar with Irish music (except the treacly pseudo-Bing Crosby pop) when a friend took me to see a highly thought of band….and they were awful!  But Greg promised me the next band would not disappoint, and 25 years later, they still do not:  Altan.

It’s hard to describe the joy you get from what to you is “new” music; music that doesn’t fit the cliches you “know”, music that shows you so many great things about the culture and the performers…I was buzzed about it for weeks after hearing them the first time, which in turn, has led me to see quite a bit of Irish and Scottish music, more than I ever thought I would growing up!  Not everything reverts back to childhood joys!
There’s also something else  — seeing a band over a long period of time.  You want both the familar and the new, to see where they want to go musically!  It doesn’t always work out, as I recall one tour where Altan was pressured to be a bit more “New Agey” than I think they were naturally inclined to be, but that’s the biz for you!  If you love them, you stick with them in the hope of this being just a phase.
The moment I’ll always remember is when, Frankie Kennedy, one of the original founders of the band, the husband of the lead singer/fiddle player Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh passed away from cancer at a quite young age.  I wasn’t sure if they would tour, but they did with Mairead in black, without the band mentioning his passing during the show.  This lent a somber note to those of us who followed the band, but it was the first encore that nearly did me in.  She came out to sing a song that she had done as a duet with Frankie playing the flute — alone.  I couldn’t look, and covered my eyes so I wouldn’t get upset.  Later, she upbraided me for that telling me that if I had started crying, she’d start crying, and she was on stage!  Crying — and drinking — was for backstage.

A video taste of her singing for you…

I can’t wait to see them again, if only just to get in some solid footstomping to some of the more lively jigs and reels, like this one

If Altan comes your way….I couldn’t recommend a band more highly.  If I can scrape together the $25 I’ll see them March 4th.


  1. Pete said,

    Wonderful post, Ron. And wonderful music. A nice start to the day. Thanks for letting me know about ’em; I’ll have to do what I can to hear more.

  2. karen said,

    If i could have been born of an ethnicity of my own choice– it would be Irish. Ancient, mystical– difficult folk, too. Just listening to the cadence- so lyrical. What’s not to love?

    Yet, the fiddling is a lot like old Quebec/French Canadian music i remember as a kid- we’d watch on CBC the old fashioned sing-a-longs on Saturday nights. Maybe you could find a video that is comparative– French Canadian vs Irish?

  3. kngfish said,

    Excellent observation Karen! Yes, the style most similar to Irish fiddling comes Cape Breton, and the fiddler I know from there is also pretty famous: Natalie McMaster. Here she has a long section from a TED talk!

    I may also write something on pipers, the Irish flavor being played on Uilleann Pipes, but the one I like best is Northumbrian small pipe. This is like a tiny bagpipe, with a more reedy sound, for indoors and specializing in dance! I went to see Kathryn Tickell more than once, as she’s terrific. To wit:

    Thanks for asking!

  4. Icepick said,

    when a friend took me to see a highly thought of band….and they were awful!

    must have been The Pogues!

  5. kngfish said,

    No, it wasn’t the Pogues! It was a pair of brothers….and I can’t remember their names!

    More Kathryn Tickell She explains the pipe a bit!

  6. kngfish said,

    What another one? Yes, just one more…this is for the yarn she tells at the front of it….and the good tune as well. Every piece of music has a story….

  7. A said,

    I love Irish music, writers, horses. Might love to live there, but
    since I don’t drink I’m not sure how I’d keep warm! Lots of raw
    wool sweaters, I guess…

  8. karen said,

    Nay, A– Irish laddies:0)!!!

  9. karen said,

    Well, if we could re-invent ourselves, that is. Otherwise- lots of flannel?

  10. Melinda said,

    My favorite Irish band is Black 47. They’re both Irish and Irish-American, and sound like Springsteen with bagpipes.

    Love that Altan reel!

  11. karen said,

    Does anyone remember the Irish Rovers?
    Got that from CBC, too.

    Not to be confused w/the Beach Combers. I’ll have to google these things– i almost can’t remember, anymore.

  12. kngfish said,

    Growing up in Detroit, we would get Canadian TV from Windsor….and the show I loved was The Pig and Whistle set in a fictional pub with Irish and Canadian music….good memories!

  13. Melinda said,

    “You ain’t gonna see no unicorns!”

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