We don’t get to hear enough traditional music here at London Celtic Punks so we were blessed to receive this in the post from the good people over at Hearth Music. After all the roots of celtic-punk lay in traditional music every bit as much as punk so to ignore your roots is indeed a foolish thing.
On first glimpse I mistakenly took the Alt for the Irish pop supergroup of the mid-90’s of Tim Finn, Andy White and Liam Ó Maonlaí but no there’s a new Alt on the block and their pedigree could hardly be better and the word ‘supergroup’ could easily describe the new Alt as well. The three members of The Alt are John O’Doyle, Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O’Leary. John was born and raised in Dublin, lives in Asheville, NC, and is one of the pre-eminent guitarists and vocalists of his generation. He has twice been Grammy-nominated for his work with the fantastic groundbreaking Irish-American band, Solas, and also for his duo recordings with the great Chicago fiddler, Liz Carroll. John met flutist and singer Nuala at the Celtic Colors festival and while touring in Europe the two hit it off while exploring songs and tunes in common. Nuala is considered one of the finest traditional flute players and a singer of great depth and emotion and has herself recorded three highly regarded solo cd’s for the Nashville based Compass Records. Conversant in both Irish and Scots she has spent part of her life in the Scots highlands. Looking to add a third voice to the band, John suggested his long-time friend and fellow Dubliner Eamon, who also plays guitar and bouzouki. A great collector of traditional song and tunes Eamon has spent many years working with Mick Moloney, Green Fields of America, Patrick Orceau and has been a stalwart of the fine NYC traditional music scene for many years. Along with Jefferson Hamer he is the other half of The Murphy Beds, a guitar, bouzouki, and vocals duo who play a unique blend of Irish and Appalachian traditional music.
Together The Alt have taken the Irish folk music world by storm with their debut album and there’s plenty more to come!
As John explains “Nuala and Eamon have been my friends for many, many years, and we’re all interested in songs and the idea of harmony singing, we felt that there was this huge emphasis [in Irish music] just on tunes and melody playing, so we wanted to get together and have a tour and an album just of lovely songs. We started working on that in Sligo a couple of years ago.”
John Doyle’s family hail from County Sligo and the shadow of the Knocknarea mountain. In Irish folklore it is said to be the final resting place of the ancient Irish warrior-queen Maeve. The ‘Alt’ is a storied glen on the side of Knocknarea. It was in this glen in the little village of Coolaney that The Alt first gathered to rehearse. Each member of the group is a avid collector of folk songs and the songs they played reflect some of the songs they grew up hearing and others they have collected along the road, from friends and mentors, from archival recordings and written collections. With rehearsals over plans were made to record an album. They chose the quiet isolation of a small cabin in North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains. A part of the world with long historical roots back in the auld country, as well as Scotland, the Appalachian’s have long been associated with old-time music. It was in fact those immigrant communities that settled there that brought us the music that slowly evolved into country and bluegrass. The Alt are well aware of this history.
Recorded in just three days this album shows The Alt’s ease with their native music and at once delicate, deliberate and always in deference to the song at its core. On first listen to the album you are instantly reminded of the classic Irish sounds of The Bothy Band and Planxty. It was in the 70’s that these bands were the first to create a fusion of the traditional unaccompanied solo singer and pipes, guitar and bouzouki.
“Eamon and I do a lot of two bouzouki stuff. We’re harkening back to what we listened to as kids, to what Andy [Irvine] and Dónal [Lunny] did in Planxty”
The Alt focus on songs from the celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland as well as both Britain and America but it is from Ireland their main inspiration comes from. The first of the albums eleven tracks is ‘Lovely Nancy’ a low key, laid back version of this magnificent song which drifts long only to be interrupted by Nuala’s superb flute playing. Despite the band members all being very capable of writing original material this album takes the traditional route and even though I am not particularly well versed in that world I did recognise a couple of tunes from my youth.
‘One Morning In May’ is one of the album standouts. Gentle vocal music with Nuala’s voice soaring ably backed by John in the chorus. ‘Geese In The Bog/ Covering Ground’ is the first of two instrumentals and rattles along at a grand pace led by the flute and guitar. ‘Willie Angler’, a tune made most famous by 70’s Irish legends Silly Wizard, tells of a rogue attempting to seduce a young girl but who turns out to be not so bad after all. A story of a lad off to fight overseas is behind ‘Going For A Soldier Jenny/ The Chandelier’ with a fine instrumental tune bringing it to a end. ‘Finn Waterside’ continues with Nuala singing of a girl saying goodbye to her home and her true love before she is exiled to America. Next up is ‘The Eighteen Of June’, as in 1815 the day of the beginning of the Battle Of Waterloo. A rare recording and beautifully arranged. ‘The Green Gowned Lass/ Danger Mouse/ Dan Breen’s’ is the albums other instrumental and, similar to the other, rattles along but leaves me unsure whether or not the middle tune is any sort of ode to the 80’s childhood cartoon rodent or indeed if the ending is a tribute to the south Tipperary born hero of the War Of Independence. With the album drawing to a close Nuala sings the beautiful ‘Cha Tig Mor Mo Bhean Dhachaigh’ a stunning and mournful song in Scots gaelic. Finally the album ends with ‘The Letter Song’ a choral version of an old song featuring John, Nuala and Eamon that tells the sad tale based on a letter written by a preacher in Kentucky to his wife in New England, warning her not to join him because of the rough conditions there. Yet again beautifully presented.
So there you have it. A fantastic first offering from The Alt. Perfection in both music and vocals and then melded together. As they’ve already said it’s the first album that surely implies more from this super group and I for one cannot wait!
Contact The Band
Eamon O’Leary Bandcamp
Order The Album
you can read our review of John’s other band Solas and their masterpiece album ‘Shamrock City’ which won the 2013 LONDON CELTIC PUNKS TRAD ALBUM OF THE YEAR here
A wealth of trad and roots music can be found at Hearth Music here