The Alt Makes Old Music Excitingly New

The Alt
Under the Arch 002
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The Alt is an accidental trio that came together with a glorious result. Irish-born musician/vocalists John Doyle (guitar/bouzouki/mandola), Nuala Kennedy  (flute/whistles), and Eamon O'Leary (guitar/bouzouki) have assembled a well-crafted album bookended by songs that highlight the glories of a capella three-part harmonies. The first is a thorough remaking of the well-known "Lovely Nancy," with vocals acting as prelude to Doyle's bell-like guitar cadences and O'Leary's lead vocal. The album closes with a surprising voices-only cover of "The Letter Song," a 1930's Kentucky ballad. Stuffed between these are nine wonderful tracks in which each musician deals from strength. O'Leary has the most 'traditional' voice of the three and you'll hear his hint-of-a-rasp tenor on "Lovely Nancy" and "Willie Angler," the latter recorded by Silly Wizard as "The Banks of the Bann." Doyle's voice is lighter and his tones such that he naturally imbues songs with melancholia, no matter the subject. You'll hear this to fine effect on "Going for a Solider" and "The Eighteenth of June." Nearly everything on this album has been mined from old songbooks and Doyle's songs are no exception. The first is one of many reluctant warrior songs in the Irish tradition, but The Alt give it a faintly maritime feel, with Kennedy's rolling flute enhancing the mood. "Eighteenth of June" is a Battle of Waterloo song in which lyrics, instrumentation, and feel inhabit the sadness, madness, hope, and tragedy of war. Kennedy has the most delicate voice of the three, perfect for slower material such as "One Morning in May" and the Scots Gaelic "Cha Tig Mór Mo Bhean Dhachaigh," a man's lament for his deceased wife.

Today's challenges to covering traditional material include making it fresh enough for  younger folks with less experience with non-processed music whilst making it different enough so that diehards aren't tempted to draw comparisons. The Alt negotiates those slippery slopes with great aplomb. For example, "The Geese in the Bog" set is two jigs in F# minor that Ms. Kennedy soups up to the degree that her flute commands you to dance. She does this by smoothing out the edges so that the cadences flow and meld. Later, on "The Green Gowned Lass" set, she, O'Leary, and Doyle take three already fast reels and slow them ever so slightly to give them the punctuated feel of jigs. Nice touch–and very typical of the best accidents I've witnessed in some time. 

PS—The Alt moniker is not an attempt to be hip; it's lifted from a Yeats poem.  
Rob Weir

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