By Earle Hitchner
ALTAN and MARY BLACK. At Prudential Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J. April 1.
Now in operation for three years, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center is a magnificent addition to the New York metro area collection of great performance facilities, such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Four tiers tall, Prudential Hall is NJPAC’s crown jewel, and all 2,750 seats were filled for this lone double-bill performance of Altan and Mary Black on their separate tours of America.
If Planxty and the Chieftains were the pre-eminent Irish traditional groups of the 1960s, the Bothy Band of the ’70s, and De Dannan of the ’80s, then the trailblazing Donegal group Altan can lay claim to Irish band of the ’90s. On the merits of their performance this night, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll lose that lofty position any time soon.
Against a backdrop of three floor-to-ceiling silkscreens with Celtic designs illuminated by varying shades of light, the quintet, who were touring in support of "Another Sky" (Virgin/Narada World), hit their marks from the start. They tore into a medley of two slip jigs and two jigs, "Gusty’s Frolics/Con’s Slip Jig/The Pretty Young Girls of Carrick/The Humours of Whiskey," leading with the twin fiddles of Ciarán Tourish and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh that later segued neatly into some brisk box playing from Dermot Byrne backed by Dáithí Sproule on guitar and Ciarán Curran on bouzouki.
Dominating the band’s new album are songs, and the ones Mairéad chose to sing from the recording were beautifully textured: Robert Burns’s "Green Grow the Rushes," the traditional "Ten Thousand Miles," and Bob Dylan’s "Girl From the North Country." New material mixed well with the old, such as the song "Dúlamán" and the "Ross Highlands," in an impressive opening set by Altan.
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Though her musical roots include folk, folk-rock, and a smattering of trad (her emergent popularity as a vocalist for General Humbert and later De Dannan), Mary Black is a pop singer and has to be approached from that perspective. Accompanied by a five-piece band, she gave strong, clear-voiced renditions of Dougie MacLean’s "Turning Away," Mick Hanly’s "Past the Point of Rescue," and Paul Brady’s "I Will Be There," though this last arrangement smacked heavily of U2’s brooding buildup in their 1987 hit "With or Without You."
Less successful were Black’s versions of such Noel Brazil songs as "Summer Sent You," "Walk With Me," and "Big Trip to Portland," the lyrics of which often seem extruded. In "Big Trip to Portland," for example, is this vapid verse: "Hey hey I’m dying to meet with you / Hey hey I’m living to speak with you / Hey hey I’m waiting to meet you baby / Hey hey hey." When the pop material is that weak, Black’s singing suffers.
But when the material rises to the level of Phil Colclough’s wistful "Song for Ireland" and Martin Hayworth’s poignant "Moments," one of the last songs recorded by Sandy Denny (1947-1978), Mary Black’s emotive interpretation rises along with it, creating an intimacy altogether rare in pop music today. The majority of songs sung by Black this night suited her ability and sensibility very well. They strengthened her status as an Irish pop vocalist who can stir listeners as few other singers can when embracing material that’s forceful, not forced.