The Blue Idol
Since their founding in the mid-1980s, Altan has built a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest Irish traditional groups around. Perhaps best known for Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh’s lovely warm, clear voice, Altan also has the distinction of having not just one, but two fine fiddlers (one of whom is Mairead), who give extra sweetness, intensity, and lift to their instrumental sets. They also have two guitarists, a bouzouki and whistle player, and an accordionist as regulars, augmented here by Donal Lunny on keyboards and bouzouki, Jim Higgins on bodhran, Harry Bradley on flute, and the legendary Liam O’Flynn on uilleann pipes for one track.
Although I love Mairead’s voice, I actually prefer Altan’s instrumental sets to their songs. And there are some very fine sets of tunes here, with the instruments blended so skillfully that it’s often hard not just to tell the fiddles apart from each other, but even the accordion from the fiddles. The arrangements are also extremely well done, starting off with just a couple instruments, then adding more and more till by the end everyone has joined in to blow the lid off the track. For instance, on the rousing set of jigs called “The Blue Idol,” very fast bodhran and fiddles start off the track, the sprightly fiddles perfectly in time with each other. Then accordion and guitar come in, anchoring the bottom end and driving the rhythm still faster, and finally flute and bouzouki join the fray, ending in a blaze of foot-stomping glory.
Part of the reason I prefer Altan’s tunes to their songs is that the songs they choose tend, for my taste, to be rather uninspired. That’s pretty much my feeling here, although it was fun to hear Dolly Parton (yes, that Dolly Parton) sharing vocals with Mairead on “The Pretty Young Girl,” an English version of a very well known Gaelic song; I was impressed with how well Dolly adapted her singing style to this Irish setting. Often Mairead seems to let her heart show more on the songs she sings in Gaelic, and that’s definitely the case with her outstanding version of “Cuach mo Lon Dubh Bui,” a song about a man whose wife leaves him and goes away with the hairy Gruagach creature instead. Mairead’s voice is just enchanting here, with lovely harmony vocals from her sister Anna; tasteful touches of saxophone and bass give the track a smoky, sultry feel that goes well with the cuckolding theme of the lyrics, and blend amazingly cleanly with the fiddle, accordion, and bodhran.
If you’re a fan of Irish traditional music, or just curious about it, Altan’s The Blue Idol will make for very fine listening.