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Irish group Altan will perform at college

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — Appalachian and traditional Irish music have always borne more than a passing resemblance, but any distinctions between the two were almost instantly wiped away in 2015 when the celebrated Irish group Altan headed to the country music capital of Nashville to record its album “The Widening Gyre.”

The traditional Irish group Altan takes the stage Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College.

Altan — founded in the late 1980s and widely regarded since that time as the premier group in the Celtic genre — was interested in moving beyond the traditional Irish sound it has always played and casting it against a style the sound helped spawn, the American mountain music that serves as the foundation of country music. As part of that effort, the Altan lineup was bolstered in the studio by the addition of several American country or bluegrass mainstays, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sam Bush, Alison Brown, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien.

“The Widening Gyre,” the result of those sessions, only solidified Altan’s standing as a heavyweight act and serves as another example of how the band has always managed to exceed the usual limitations of its outside-the-mainstream genre.

Lead vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh said that after approximately three decades, the band was interested in testing new waters.

“Rather than making another album of traditional Irish music as we had always done, we thought this would be a way to restart out career,” she said last week during a phone interview from Bloomington, Ind., where the band was performing before heading west for a show at San Juan College this weekend.

There was also some curiosity involved, she said.

“We wanted to get to the roots of what Appalachian and Irish music is based on,” she said.

Those roots run deep, helping explain why Altan has always had such a strong following in the United States.

“We’ve met a lot of great people in America, and this was an excuse to come to Nashville,” she said, laughing.

This will be the band’s first show here, although it has performed in New Mexico before.

“We’re not on the road as much as we used to be,” she said. “But we still enjoy it. It’s our job, and we love traveling in America.”

The product of a musical family, Mhaonaigh grew up in County Dongeal on Ireland’s northwest coast and initially made her living as a teacher. But it wasn’t long before the musical life beckoned and she found herself launching a band that would come to epitomize Irish music for audiences around the world.

Even with that background, Mhaonaigh said fronting a band is not a skill that came naturally to her. It’s something she still has to work at today, she said.

“Oh, it’s definitely a learning skill,” she said. “It’s never easy communicating what you want with an audience.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Performance by Altan

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24

Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Tickets: $22 for adults, $18 for students, $15 for seniors and $12 for children 12 and younger at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette

For more information: Call 505-566-3430