It must be at least 10 years since I last saw Altan play live but they have lost none of their energy or charm. Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick is a small venue, seating around 200 people and provided an intimate setting in which the audience could see puffs of resin flying off Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s and Ciarán Tourish’s fiddles.
Their set is powered by the dual Donegal-style fiddling and Ní Mhaonaigh’s achingly pitched voice, singing both in English and as Gaeilge. Each set of tunes was introduced with an anecdote about where they came from or what the song was about and who had first taught it to them.
They dipped into their back catalogue from the days when the late Frankie Kennedy was with them, through to more recent material. I have always preferred their earlier albums and was not a great fan of the Dolly Parton collaborations and covers of Bob Dylan songs and thankfully tonight they kept it strictly trad.
Highlight’s were the songs Dúlamán and The Flower of Magherally - fitting for a Co Down gig and earning a cheer from the audience when Ní Mhaonaigh said she had often accompanied her late husband Frankie to support Down at Croke Park.
But it was the attacking fiddling that had the audience stamping their feet and whooping high-pitched wails.
There were slower moments letting each of the band members show of their talents – box-player Dermot Byrne, guitarist Mark Kelly and bouzouki player Ciarán Curran as well as Tourish and Ní Mhaonaigh.
Superb musicianship aside Altan can charm their audience with their banter among one another and repartee with the audience and let’s face it Ní Mhaonaigh’s is a sort of thinking Celtic hippy’s dream woman – witty, talented and beautiful in an Earth mother sort of way.
There is an understandable tendency to focus on Ní Mhaonaigh but Altan’s greatness is down to the sum contribution of each of its members – often understated as in the case of Curran who seemed to pluck almost wistfully at his bouzouki, but closer listening reveals that he is often playing a counter melody that gives the group a subtle, layered sound even in the middle of an all-out fiddling dual.
Given that it was St Patrick's Day and the saint is buried just five minute's walk from the Arts Centre it was great to see one of Ireland's finest trad groups in the town.