As retrospectives go, this is a good one, and captures the pace that Altan brings to a regular release. The entire history is represented here, at least as it was distributed by Green Linnet. The early trio date with Frankie, Mairead and Ciaran Curran through the final formation as sextet before Frankie's passing with the additions of Ciaran Tourish, Daithi Sproule and Dermot Byrne are well represented. The weaker points come from "Horse With a Heart" which has something missing in Phil Cunningham's production, though I am hard pressed to say what it is that's missing.
Perhaps the element of personnel flux is at its most vulnerable during these early days, as Paul Shaunnesy and Mark Kelly were sometimes on and sometimes off because of their day jobs. It really wasn't until "The Red Crow" that Frankie and Mairead made the decision to leap forward with this band as their career, and it is with that release that Altan really catches fire.
The shadows of Johnny Dougherty, Con Campbell, James Byrne and Robert Cinnamond loom large in the soul of this band, and in no uncertain terms they took the Donegal-Ulster tradition of Irish music and carried it from the back bothrins of Gaoth Dobhair to front and center in the Irish Cultural Renaissance of the 80's and 90's.
But, the real gem here is the limited edition version that carried a live CD with it. Having promoted them live in Philadelphia 4 times, once at my own establishment that is wonderfully recorded on tape as well as shows at Bluett Theatre, whose video capture by Drexel University is just breathtaking, I can tell you that Altan is a Very Different Beast LIVE. No quarter is asked or given. It's all hell for leather and the sheer dynamics of this band wrung you out emotionally, left you dancing ecstatically like some Celtic Dervish or Gaelic Pentacostalist. Their passion live has surely been responsible in part for the Irish American baby boom of the last decade! Green Linnet presents a great, great snippet of their live material, which underscores the whole issue that somewhere, someone, everyone should be hammering IMN, their management company, to get a live box set out, live DVD out, especially of the years helmed by Frankie. The Cabin John appearances in the early days of the DC Irish Folk Festival, following Ashley Mac Isaac, were perfomances of legend. Not to be outdone by the peripatetic Mac Isaac, Frankie and Mairead rose to the challenge and left a crowd of dazed enthusiasts in sheer joyful abandon. Roll the tapes forward and appearances at The National Geographic Society, Wolf Trap, following The Rankins and Natalie Mac Master, are all very possibly the greatest festival performances ever given by any band. Think Duke Ellington at Newport! Their performance here at Duffy's with Mearta Wagar and Brid Ni Chostelloe is still talked about and all I can tell you is that these tapes are the most precious things in my life. I've given you direction where to get some of the masters, so get on with it! This is a band whose every burp should be documented, especially live. Irish music was never this good before and it will never reach these heights whenever they finally hang up their bows and pocket their plectrums.
If record companies and management companies still drop the ball, go catch them live, even if you have to book airfare to Ireland. They have always been and remain the best. Look up "keepin it real" in the dictionary: Altan invented it.