It was definitely a first for me. When have you experienced the combination of 5-string banjo, Irish harp and uilleann pipes playing together? A fascinating new trio of young Irish musicians have come together to become Alfi and their mission is to combine Old Time American music with Irish traditional music. Touring in support of their first EP, Alfi hit the stage in Belfast’s sublime venue The Duncairn Centre and treated the audience to a delightful night of tunes and songs.
In a unique take on the Appalachian favourite ‘Cluck Old Hen’, led by Alannah Thornburgh on harp, Fiachra Meek lent his powerful vocals and gave his own twist to the original lyrics - mentions of ‘cash in hand’ confirmed that this bird had definitely moved to Ireland!
More fun was induced by BedTime Stories, a curious song which Fiachra had sung to him in his childhood by his grandfather, Bill Meek. “This little piggy ate too much clover, He lay down and died” might be considered a little dark for some children but the audience tonight lapped it up.
Ryan McAuley is a gifted banjo player in both clawhammer and bluegrass styles. He explained that Old Time music was traditionally played on banjo and fiddle, but Alfi have adapted it and use the combination of banjo, flute and harp. They demonstrated this on instrumentals such as Josie-O, a slow fiddle tune from Tennessee featuring Ryan’s hauntingly beautiful clawhammer playing, and in songs such as Strictly Lean, Strictly Fat.
All three are virtuoso musicians and music graduates - examples of the new breed of young Irish musicians who are starting to assert themselves on the live scene. With Alannah’s harp and Fiachra’s uilleann pipes and flute, their sound is still dominated by the Irish tradition. We were treated to traditional Irish tunes both old and new, the provenance of those tunes being explained by Fiachra with the zeal of an archivist. They gave us John McSherry’s The Fair Wind (appropriately for a Belfast audience) and O’Carolan’s Mr James Betagh.
Overall I, for one, would like to see Ryan taking them slowly but surely deeper into the Old Time sound. I’ll be watching their progress with interest.
In the meantime, check out on their 5 track EP Wolves in The Woods and try to catch them live.
Review and photograph by Eilís Boland