The Alt: September 2022 Artists of the Month



The Alt

Under the Arch Records 




The Alt is an Irish/pan-Celtic band that spotlights guitar virtuoso John Doyle, flautist Nuala Kennedy, and bouzouki/harmonium artist Eamon O’Leary. All three were sired and raised on the Emerald Isle, but have lived in the United States for many years. You might know them from other lineups: Doyle as a sideman for fiddler extraordinaire Liz Carroll, as a member of Solas, and as solo performer; Kennedy with Anam, Harem Scarem, and numerous other solo and guest projects; O’Leary with The Murphy Beds and scores of guest appearances. In other words, The Alt is a trio whose musical cred is as unimpeachable as it is impeccable.


I recently purchased their latest recording, Day is Come, after catching them in a live show at a nearly full house at The Drake in Amherst. (Apparently, their reputation preceded them.) The album spotlights ten songs, many of which they performed that night. It’s a pleasant recording but if you’re one of those people who wonder if what you hear can be duplicated on stage, worry not; The Alt is many times more dynamic live. By necessity, a good collection of songs interprets melodies and lyrics. That’s a good way to judge whether artists are singers or just showoffs who could be belting out a grocery list.


They signal their interpreter’s approach early on. The title song–whose Irish title is “Tá’na Lá”, though it’s sung in English–is an a cappella version of a drinking song with a dirge-like mood. That’s a bold opening gambit, but The Alt prefer to let songs speak for themselves. Doyle takes the vocal lead on “Falkirk Fair,” a well-known traditional song you can hear from numerous others, though maybe not with this melody. (If you hear a song sung to many tunes, that’s generally a signifier it’s either a trad or older composition.) O’Leary sings another well-traveled song, “Willow Tree,” which also spotlights the trio’s superb complementary harmony singing. Collectively, the opening three tracks establish the mellow, calming intent of the album.


If you like traditional music, other gems include the Child ballad “Flower of Northumberland,” “Paddy’s Land,” and “The Blackbird and the Thrush.” Kennedy steps up to the mic for Éiníní (“Little Birds”), an old song to which she gives a lullaby treatment in honor of two children. Frankly, I prefer Kennedy’s harmony singing, but she gives this one a sensitive treatment. If you want to hear some fancy picking by Doyle and O’Leary, check out “Lohans” and “The Donegal Tinker,” both of which are part of a longer set. Kennedy also airs it out on these. 


The latter is one thing I missed on Day is Come, namely the trio’s amazing musicianship. The only prolonged instrumental interludes are the above selection and the “Stolen Butler” set. In it we hear Doyle’s precise finger picking (DADGAG tuning, I believe), Kennedy’s swooping flute with its seamless transitions into “Biddy Early’s Reel,” and O’Leary’s subtle texturing bouzouki. (Irish music legend Kevin Burke guests on fiddle.) I can’t emphasize enough that these are three skilled musicians who cook with gas when they wield their instruments of choice. They haven’t yet produced videos from the new album, but if you want to experience what I mean about their dynamism, try the videos of older material on their website: http://www.thealtmusic.com/watch Watch Kennedy blow magic through a metal tube and O’Leary establish grounding structures for Doyle’s heroic acoustic guitar work. (In case you can’t tell, John has long been a favorite of mine.) Scroll down to “The Geese and the Bog” set, and you’ll see some of what I mean about Doyle. O’Leary picks out crystalline notes on his capoed bouzouki and Kennedy weaves to the flute, but Doyle, without making a fuss, attacks his guitar–it’s scarred surface a testament to that; no need for theatrics. (You’ll also notice that Doyle is left-handed, which is still relatively rare among fretted artists.)


All of this is to say that if you get a chance to see The Alt, do so. Their studio recordings are lovely reminders, but there’s fluidity, synergy, and brio in their stage presence that make them special. It looks effortless, but it’s not!


Rob Weir


Trust Intriguing, but Flawed


TRUST (2022)

By Hernan Diaz

Riverhead Books, 416 pages.




 Trust was long-listed for the Booker Prize. That strikes me as about right for an intriguing but highly uneven novel. In a manner of speaking, it really is about finance. It is told in four parts: “Bonds,” “My Life,” “A Memoir, Remembered,” and “Futures.”


The first part is a novel-within-a-novel penned by (the fictional) Harold Vanner. This section calls to mind classics such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and Martin Dressler, with dashes of Howard Hughes tossed in. It follows Benjamin Rask, the heir to a tobacco fortune. At the end of the Gilded Age Rask foresees that finance is a better route to fortune, off-loads the family business, and becomes a Wall Street tycoon. He quickly gains a reputation for being as prescient as contemporaries such as the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. In some ways, he’s even more astute as he manipulates markets before World War One and pivots again just before the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Rask is a workaholic recluse and seeks a wife with the same qualities. He finds her in Helen Brevoort, though she begins to show distressing signs of sociability by holding concerts and soirees at the Rask mansion. Alas, Helen collapses emotionally and is shuttled off to a Swiss sanitarium where she is subjected to gruesome non-cures. Tragedy. 


“My Life” is the memoir notes of Andrew Bevel, the novel’s “real-life” Benjamin Rask. It has a very different tone–flat, in fact–and Bevel emerges as even more of a genius than in Vanner’s novel. Bevel’s wife Mildred, though, is stripped all suggestions of mental imbalance. “My Life” is really little more than a prose outline with lacunae, but we can see that Bevel has an unimaginative imagination. Call this one egoism.


“A Memoir, Remembered” brings Ida Partenza into the picture to recount events that occur during the 1930s Great Depression. Ida lives in a run-down section of Brooklyn with her widowed typesetter/printer father whose attitude toward money is as cavalier as one might expect for an anarchist weaned on events such as the 1912 Lawrence Bread and Roses strike and the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti. He is an Italian immigrant who prefers to call himself an “exile.” Ida is more practical; she changes her surname to Prentice to gain an interview in Bevel’s office. He sees through her guise, but hires her to ghostwrite his memoir to “correct” the efforts of Vanner, whom Bevel despises.


Bevel is even more egotistical than his outline suggests and Mildred is reduced to a saintly appendage to his genius. He pays well and Ida is solicitous of Bevel, though she doubts the veracity of both halves of her assignment, the puff piece and the hagiography. I am tempted to characterize this section as delusional.


The final section is set in 1966 and finds Ida a respected author touring the Bevel home–think a high-rise version of Manhattan’s Frick Museum–years after Andrew’s death. She sifts a few memories and spills a few revelations based upon having found and painstakingly deciphered Mildred’s diary. Realism?


Hernan Diaz attempted an ambitious novel that touches upon topics such as taming bohemianism, identity erasure, prescriptive gender roles, betrayal, love of mammon, and rewriting history.  He has a great story to tell, but parts of the novel simply don’t work. “My Life’ is one of them. Diaz painted himself into a literary corner in that he needed to establish Andrew Bevel’s livid anger toward Vanner yet also alert readers that he was incapable of penning an autobiography on his own. Diaz’s instincts were good, but the section is akin to reading an annotated list­, hardly anyone’s idea of engrossing reading. In my judgment, Diaz could have folded select details from section two into section three; in essence, write of Ida to poring over Bevel’s notes and commenting on Bevel’s turgid prose and disjointed thoughts. This is especially the case given that Ida’s discussions with Bevel repeat things we’ve already read.


There is a similar need for paring and elimination of repetition throughout. I seldom recommend such a thing, but don’t be afraid to skim same old/same old sections. At 416 pages Trust is a good novel; at 325 it might have been a great one. Or at least one that made it to the Booker short list.


Rob Weir  


When All is Said a Brilliant Debut



By Anne Griffin

Thomas Dunne Books, 323 pages.

★★★★ ½ 




I went through several rings of Dante’s Inferno to get my mitts on the Irish novel When All is Said. I tried to download it when it first came out, but it came in a format unrecognized by my Kindle. I tried again last year and a different Epub format was rejected. I ended up getting a hard copy via interlibrary loan. It was worth it; Anne Griffin penned a very impressive debut book.


Its structure is deceptively simple: five toasts in one day inside a hotel pub partly owned by 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan. Maurice is world-weary. His beloved wife Sadie is two years in a grave alongside their stillborn daughter Molly, his journalist son Kevin decamped to America after the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger, he has more money than he knows what to do with, and he’s a grumpy old guy whom people admire but don’t like. Think an Irish version of Fredrik Backman’s Ove without Ove’s humor or redeeming neighbors.


Over the course of an afternoon and evening Maurice raises a bottle of stout or a glass of whiskey to his dead brother Tony, Molly, his wife’s mentally challenged sister Noreen, Kevin, and Sadie. Maurice invites descriptors such as hard man, stubborn, vengeful, and misanthropic. He hasn’t been lovable since he was a child following his brother Tony around like a gangly puppy, but one by one the lights that guided Maurice have gone out.


Griffin’s novel is a mix of remembrances, regrets, tragedies, and secrets. We meet Maurice as a child living a hand-to-mouth existence on an Irish freehold too small to sustain a family. Hence, most of the family supplements their income by working for the Dollards, the largest landowners in the village. As was often the case of upwardly mobile Irish, the Dollards put on airs and affectations more akin to English gentry than their Irish counterparts. The Dollards, especially son Thomas, are demanding, cruel, and think it their right to discipline their social inferiors. Maurice sports a lifelong scar from one of Thomas’ fits of pique. Thus, he thinks nothing of picking up a gold coin that falls from a window as Thomas’ father Hugh berates him. That coin, a rare Edward VIII sovereign, will remain hidden for decades and plays a big role in the novel.


As the years go by, Maurice quits school—he is dyslexic, but few recognized such things in the 1930s—becomes a farmer, and develops surprising aptitude for making shrewd land deals. Soon, the Hannigan coffers fill as those of the Dollards empty. When grandson Jason offers to sell a desirable piece of land, Maurice lowballs him because he knows the Dollards have no choice. Even his charity has strings attached. When Hugh Dollard’s granddaughter Emily decides to risk all by opening a hotel in the village, Maurice is her silent 49 percent co-owner. (You can read about his ulterior motives.)


Can Maurice recover some of his humanity as he sits at his customary seat in the corner of the bar and revisits his past? Don’t bet for or against it. When All is Said is poignant, sad, and moving. Griffin takes us inside the mind of a man discovering a lot of things about himself after it’s too late. He absolutely adored Sadie, but was often too busy with acquisition and filled with spite to tell her so. Now there’s no way to give her what she really wanted, affection not things. In essence, the man who wanted to break others broke himself.


When All is Said isn’t fast-paced or action-driven, but is there a greater burden or villain than guilt? Griffin wraps this tragic self-revelation in layer upon layer of remorse and lost opportunity. She excels at deep development of departed and non-present characters that, in their own way, are more alive than Maurice. You may find yourself biting your nails from the tension of stillness, another deft maneuver on Griffin’s part. To invoke an Irish expression, this is a fine novel to be sure, to be sure.


Rob Weir