The Irish/Celtic band Altan, founded in County Donegal in 1987, returned to Diana Wortham Theatre after a ten-year hiatus to its enthusiastic Asheville fan base. This is their fourth appearance in this city, and guitarist/singer Dáithí Sproule is personally known to those who’ve attended the Swannanoa Gathering as a teacher of Irish songs. Headliner and founder Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is the charismatic lead singer whose fiddling chops are matched by Ciaran Tourish who also plays the tin whistle. Ciarán Curran plays the bouzouki, an instrument relatively new to Irish traditional music. Dermot Byrne, charming button-accordion player extraordinaire, was recently named Traditional Musician of the Year by the TG4 Gradam Ceoil (Traditional Music Awards) 2013. The concert was presented in partnership with The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College and was sponsored by Don and Nancy Ackermann Cole.

The band is well deserving of its international reputation as one of the finest Celtic bands around. They have it all — killer playing chops, infallible musical instincts, and solid ties to the living, oral tradition of picking up songs new and old from a variety of sources and turning them into gold. They play reels and jigs with a fierce and driving rhythmic precision with only their own tapping feet as time keepers, rendering any accompanying percussionist unnecessary. They also delve into the other end of the emotional spectrum, with songs of great tenderness, tragedy, and longing. Their CD resume and touring schedule are impressive, indicative of the world-wide reach they’ve developed over thirty years of playing.

For this program they performed many medleys of reels, typically increasing in intensity as one followed another by additions of players to the melody line, change-ups in accompaniments, and/or a ratcheting up of the tempo. Rhythmic yells and yips underscored their own playing. The two great fiddle players often performed the same melodies at lightning speed in perfect synchronization, and occasionally displayed some theatrical fiddle face-offs for short periods. Byrne sits quietly and simply burns the house down, playing his accordion with a fierceness to match that of the fiddlers. Curran and Sproule add the essential rhythmic elements of their respective chording instruments, with Sproule also featured on several vocals. Some instrumental highlights were “The Lancers Jig / The Further in the Deeper” and “Comb Your Hair and Curl It / Gweebarra Bridge

Vocal highlights of the evening in both English and Gaelic came from their recent album Gleann Nimhe (The Poison Glen), which they also translated to the audience as The Heavenly Land. “Seolta Geala” (White Sails) is about taking to the high seas on a sailing boat with white sails and leaving the woes of the land behind. “An Ghealóg” is a lament written by their friend, Martin Tourish to mourn a little bird, the bunting, after it perished of the cold on a Winter’s night. “The Blackest Crow” had some of the most vivid imagery as the singer sang of her devotion to her beloved. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is one of Ireland’s greatest singers with a pure, clear voice and an authentic performance style laced with delicate ornamentation which is simply and ravishingly beautiful. Altan graced the audience with two encores to a standing and rousing ovation.

The next concert in Diana Wortham Theatre’s Mainstage Celtic Series will be Comas on April 25, please see our calendar listing for details.