Borrowing its title from a poem by W.B. Yeats, The Widening Gyre finds this veteran Celtic combo journeying to Nashville and intertwining their Irish roots with ample doses of Appalachian mountain music and wholly American bluegrass. Guests Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Brown, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Todd Phillips, Bryan Sutton, and Darol Anger help Altan expand their musical palette, while still retaining an emphasis on their usual array of traditional ballads, jigs and reels. Fiddles, banjos and mandolins abound, but when singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh takes the helm on the sublime “No Ash Will Burn”, “Lurgy Streams”, “Far Beyond Carrickfinn”, and the stoic standard “The House Carpenter (Gypsy Davy)”, even this year’s thermal winter couldn’t keep them from melting one’s heart in response. Despite the disparate locale, the music does hold a certain seminal attraction for the band. Most music scholars will affirm the fact that Appalachian music and the folk tunes of Ireland do hold a certain kinship, both in the instrumentation and in the sublime sentiments that continually come to the fore.
It’s also an apt venture for a band that’s been around nearly 35 years together, a distinction that marks them as a band with the longest running lineup of founding members on the Irish music scene today. It’s also a credit to their perseverance that despite their hardy trajectory, they’re still keen to bend the boundaries and venture into new and as yet unconquered terrain. Learning and performing the music firsthand alongside their storied guests would certainly seem to help, but being that they were in Music City for only the second time, it’s especially fortuitous that they had Compass Records co-founder Garry West on hand to help steer the proceedings. One might imagine that he was the conduit between the Irish players and the American musicians, giving them common ground in the studio and a well of shared musical experiences from which they could freely draw.
Likewise, the more obvious musical touches made a marked impression as well, particularly the presence of Ms. Carpenter on the sublime “White Birds”, a Yeats poem about being a bird on the sea, and Scottish songstress Eddi Reader, who lends her vocals to the lush and lovely folk tale “Far Beyond Carrickfinn”.
Still, for all the apparent reverence and obvious historical leanings, The Widening Gyre is much more than a mere scholarly treatise. The energy and enthusiasm are palatable, and there’s a sense of celebration that echoes throughout. And yet it’s clear that Altan relishes its roots, and that they’re determined to do all they can to keep them visible at all times. For all the merging of forms and finesse, the group’s archival influences and untarnished authenticity continue to operate at full throttle. It’s a lesson in assimilation—mix and merge, but stay true to your own traditions.
Ultimately, The Widening Gyre is a defining moment for Altan. So while it remains to be seen if they’ll continue on this course, now anyway, Altan has made the kind of album that defines them as distinctive.