Barb and I are big traditional Irish music fans, and it has been our pleasure over the years to see Altan, one of the genre’s supergroups, multiple times. They almost always tour the U.S. at least once a year, and we’ve mainly seen them perform in the D.C. area, though also at Milwaukee Irish Fest… and now, as of last night, in Chicago.
Or more accurately, in Evanston, the near-in suburb best known as the home of Northwestern University. Altan played at Evanston SPACE, one of the most interesting — and certainly one of the smallest — music locales I’ve seen.
SPACE is an acronym for Society for the Preservation of Art and Culture in Evanston, and not a description of the surroundings. I didn’t mark off distances, but I doubt that you could be more than 20 feet from the performers anywhere in that room, which along with the stage includes a full bar. (Food may be brought in from the Union Pizzeria, which Evanston SPACE adjoins.) We were in the second row of tables, maybe five or so feet from the stage.
The intimacy of the place was remarked upon by the members of the band, which is led by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (roughly pronounced ma-RAYD nee WIN-ee), a co-founder of the group with her late husband Frankie Kennedy. A fiddler who also sings soprano with bell-like clarity in both Gaelic and English, she is accompanied by Ciaran Tourish, a fiddler and wind instrument player; Dermot Byrne, an accordianist (and Ni Mhaonaigh’s second husband); Daithi Sproule, the Irish-born guitar player who now resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota; and Ciaran Curran, the band’s excellent bouzouki player.
Did he say bouzouki? Yes, the bouzouki, an instrument of Greek origin that is in the lute family, is not uncommon at all in traditional Irish music. I’ve always found it interesting how many instruments are used in common, though with their own unique styles, by the ethnic musicians of many nationalities.
If you’re not that familiar with traditional Irish music and you’re thinking Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, you’re working the wrong part of the bog. Not that there is anything wrong with Danny Boy, but it’s not what trad is all about. Though traditional Irish music has its share of ballads and airs, it is mostly dance music, jigs and reels with a propulsive beat. Think Riverdance without the show-business glitz, or Lord of the Dance sans Las Vegas, and you’ve got the idea.
If you already like this kind of music, or want to find out if you do, then Altan has to be on your must-see list. They are playing at Milwaukee Irish Fest this weekend, with a lot of other great acts, so I recommend this fun event if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
I also recommend checking out Evanston SPACE if you live around Chicago and haven’t been. They have a solid lineup that ranges across jazz, blues, folk, singer-songwriter and other genres. And it would be hard to find a place where you’ll get more up close and personal with the performers: Barb and I ended up chatting with Ciaran Tourish after the show as we waited at the bar for our check and he waited for a much-deserved drink.
And the pizza at the Union is quite good, though with this caveat. It is wood-fired, thin-crust pizza, which often has a hard time acting as a secure platform for its toppings. We were careful enough not to end of wearing any of it into the show next door, but the artichoke, olive and fresh mozzarella pizza — though very tasty — tended to become a bit deconstructed over the course of the meal. The sausage pizza (they are individual sized as long as you come with a hearty appetite) maintained its structural integrity better.