Now in its 11th year, the Ballincollig Winter Music Festival is a timely indicator that hibernation time is over as the town’s White Horse venue hosts four evenings of top class musical entertainment over the last weekend of January. Proving a popular event on the calendar the festival already boasts two sold out events, the first, appropriately, is the band accorded the honour of opening the festival on Thursday *January 23rd), The White Horse Guitar Club.
As their name suggests, The White Horse Guitar Club are no strangers to The White Horse as the 11-piece outfit were born there. Having already entertained a packed Cork Opera House with their Interpretations of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Guy Clarke and John Prine it’s no surprise they’ve sold out this venue. Support comes from New York-based folk duo The Murphy Beds.
On Friday (January 24), Mullingar’s The Blizzards will be letting rip with their energetic guitar-led pop. Formed in 2004 by Niall ‘Bressie’ Breslin, the band’s debut single, ‘First Girl to Leave Town’, entered the Irish Singles Chart at number 11 in 2005. Subsequent single ‘Trouble’ and ‘Fantasy’ entered the Top 10. Released in 2006, their debut album, A Public Display of Affection, achieved platinum status in Ireland.
Saturday (January 25) sees another sold out gig, and unsurprisingly it’s The Frank and Walters. As the authors of such anthems as ‘This Is Not a Song’, ‘After All’,
Bringing the festival to a close on Sunday are Donegal trad group Altan. They will be supported by Jean-Michel Veillon and Yvon Riou. From the north coast of Brittany, traditional flute player Veillon has taken influences from various Irish flute players and incorporated them into Breton music. He will be accompanied on guitar by his compatriot Riou.
And speaking of Altan... anniversaries are great times for reflection and reassessment, and for artists they provide an opportunity to look at things anew. In 2010, Altan marked their 25th anniversary by recording the retrospective album 25th Anniversary Celebration with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The process of compiling the album proved to be something of an eye-opener for the band, as their lead vocalist and fiddle player Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh reports.
“We were going back on old material and realising how good the old songs and traditions are. We had to go back into our back catalogue, playing stuff that we enjoyed playing, and we still do. And it just gives us that lease of life, that we have so many albums under the belt now that we can go back and it can be new to a lot of our new fans that they’ve never heard these other songs and other sets of tunes. Which is nice. It’s refreshing for us as well.”
She adds: “With every new album you start playing the new songs on the latest album and then you end up forgetting the older ones that you love as well. I was singing ‘I Wish My Love was a Red Red Rose’, that I got from Tommy Makem’s mother, Sarah Makem. I heard a recording of her singing it. It was just fantastic and the orchestra gave it a new lease of life. On the original album, Runaway Sunday, Alison Krause did beautiful harmonies behind it. And we hadn’t done it in a while.”
In 2012, Altan released Gleann Nimhe – The Poison Glen, but for their 12th studio album, coinciding with their 30th anniversary, they decided a different approach was in order.
“Because The Widening Gyre is our umpteenth album we were trying to just go down a different direction. Just for the fun of it have a theme album, because somebody mentioned are we just going to play the same tunes again,” Ní Mhaonaigh recalls.
Since 2010, Altan have involved with the Nashville, Tennessee label Compass Records. They invited the Donegal group over to spend some time in the city and record there. Having previously collaborated with country music star Dolly Parton, Altan appreciated the connection they shared in the traditional songs from the Appalachian Mountains, where Parton has her roots. They decided The Widening Gyre would explore those connections further.
Says Ní Mhaonaigh: “We had met so many people in America that played versions of tunes that we had which was in their American tradition. I’m thinking of Miss McCleod’s Reel and all of these tunes that we have common in both traditions in the Appalachian Mountains and here in Ireland and in Scotland. It was lovely to be able to delve into what we had in common. They looked at us as their roots. Ricky Skaggs was introducing us one night in the Grand Ole Opry and he said: ‘This is where our music came from.’ And it was just such a lovely introduction, that he had that understanding of his tradition. That we were the roots, our traditional Irish music, the roots of Appalachian, old timey, bluegrass, that’s the basics of all of their music and it was nice to get that acknowledgement.”
Before entering the studio Altan spent time getting to know the huge cast of guest musicians, many of whom they’ve crossed paths with before.
“It was a very easy album to record because nobody was arriving with a steadfast idea,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “We had an open idea of what we wanted. And then of course my thing is to sing Gaelic as well and I tried to get songs that they would be able to play with and they seemed to like them. And so we had a good time.”
This theme of renewal, which was set in train with the 25th Anniversary Celebration manifested itself on their 2018 album The Gap of Dreams, a record that saw the appearance of the next generation of Altan with Mairéad’s daughter, fiddler Nia Byrne providing a jig and concertina player Sam Kelly, son of guitarist Mark, providing another tune. As Altan in their 35th year look forward to getting back into the studio again Ní Mhaonaigh hopes they’ll join the band again.
“It’s just such a joy to see the seeds spurting, we’ll say,” she beams. “And Nia, my daughter, and Sam Kelly, Mark’s son, they came up with those lovely tunes and they didn’t expect us to take them but I thought why not! They’re brilliant tunes. They’re fantastic tunes. Why not play them and give them encouragement. And then they join us onstage whenever they can to play with us and that’s lovely. It’s the evolvement. It’s how the tradition is still alive here in Ireland. We’re just doing it on a commercial scale, we’ll say, in that we’re on stage and this is the next generation. That’s what they’ve been brought up with. That’s their DNA coming through and it’s nice for an audience to see that.”
As one generation announce themselves on the stage another generation passes into eternity and even though the worlds of daytime pop radio and traditional Irish music rarely meet it’s no surprise to learn that Altan had a connection with the late beloved DJ Larry Gogan when they became the first traditional Irish band to sign to Virgin Records in the mid 1990s.
“We were in Paris doing a promotional day,” Ní Mhaonaigh recalls, “and he rang from the show and he did a huge speak on the band and played a few of our tracks and chatted to us. Any time I met him in RTÉ he was always the nicest man. He’s just going to be so missed.
“That’s why he was so important. He really did carry the torch for Irish bands.”
Altan play the Ballincollig Winter Music Festival at The White Horse on Sunday, January 26. Doors 8.00pm.
For more information check www.wintermusicfestival.ie.