Lunasa’s New CD: When Four Make “Six”

By Earle Hitchner

[Published on February 22, 2006, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

Six albums in ten years: it’s as good a time as any to take stock of Lunasa’s musical stock.

They started out in 1996 with a lineup of Mayo-born Sean Smyth on fiddle and whistle, Tyrone-born Trevor Hutchinson on double bass, Dublin-born Donogh Hennessy on guitar, Belfast-born John McSherry on uilleann pipes and whistle, and Manchester-born Michael McGoldrick on flute and whistle.

In 1997 this quintet’s self-titled debut CD was drawn mainly from concerts given in Cork, Galway, Mayo, and Dublin, and the impact created by their mostly live playing on that album was visceral. Stunned by these superlative performances, I immediately decided to place “Lunasa” in my top 10 list of recordings for 1997. (Disclosure: I wrote a short essay for the expanded reissue on Compass Records in 2002.)

McSherry and McGoldrick had left when Lunasa recorded their second CD in 1999, “Otherworld,” though both musicians guested on it. Birmingham-born, Clare resident flute, whistle, and bodhran player Kevin Crawford was on board by then, and he provided Lunasa with a new spark in both musicianship and crowd communication.

Crawford’s reputation as a flutist in Ireland had spread rapidly through his playing in such groups as Grianan, Raise the Rafters, and especially Moving Cloud and through “‘D’ Flute Album,” his solo debut in 1994. His quick wit and ebullient personality also helped to dissolve the proscenium scrim between Lunasa and their audience. At this point, Lunasa was more than a great instrumental group-they were also great craic.

In 2001 “The Merry Sisters of Fate” marked Armagh-born uilleann pipes and whistle player Cillian Vallely’s recording debut with Lunasa and earned the band an Association for Independent Music award for best Celtic/British Isles album.

“Redwood” in 2002 was a mixed blessing for Lunasa: a fine recording marred by an eventually public dispute with their record company, Green Linnet.

Those wounds appeared to have healed when Lunasa made their first album licensed to Compass in 2004: “The Kinnitty Sessions.” It was a terrific performance recorded live at Offaly’s Kinnitty Castle in December 2003, though in retrospect it was also a little unnerving to hear a concert performance on CD with no stage patter and no crowd reaction.

Lunasa’s new album for Compass, “Se” (cat. no. 7-4422-2), came out on Feb. 21. It’s their first without founding guitarist Donogh Hennessy and, true to its title in Irish, their sixth CD overall. Guests Tim Edey, who’s originally from Whitstable, Kent, and Paul Meehan, who was raised in Manchester and is now officially a member of Lunasa, have nimbly filled Hennessy’s guitar spot on the recording, which ranks with the best studio releases the band has made.

Even with the personnel churn common to many established Irish traditional bands, Lunasa over the past decade has forged a sound as distinctive as Altan’s and De Dannan’s and as immediately identifiable. A trademark of Lunasa’s arrangements and style is the often sudden, gooseflesh-raising way they make a transition from one tune to another in a dance medley. The illusion they create is startling, as if the last note played in one tune is also the first note played in the next tune, or the last note in one tune is skipped in favor of the first note of the next tune. This shift is so swift, sure, and surprising in execution that it induces a frisson or reflexive shudder from the listener.

The opening medley of “Mike Hobin’s/Emmet’s Hedgehog/Dunrobin Castle” is a case in point. You sense the first shift coming, but you’re past it before you quite realize it, and the second shift is even trickier, a sly interstitial riff before a quickened tempo. No one else in Irish traditional music, not even silky-smooth fiddler Kevin Burke, effects changes in medleys the way Lunasa does.

Another trademark of the band is how they keep stretching artistically and diversifying their music without losing a grip on their distinguishing sound. “Se” features two tunes composed by Kevin Crawford, “Absent Friends” and “Loophead Lighthouse”; two tunes composed by Cillian Vallely, “Leckan Mor” and “Road to Barga”; and single tunes written by Niall Vallely (Cillian’s brother), Emer Mayock, Diarmaid Moynihan, Maire Breatnach, Brendan Larrissey, Alan Kelly, Fred Morrison, and Maurice Lennon. It’s obvious that Lunasa has its ear to the ground for tasty melodies fashioned by friends and other musicians.

Intriguing slices of exotica have also been part of the band’s repertoire since they recorded Michel Bordeleau’s “Fleur de Mandragore,” Pierre Bensusan’s “The Last Pint,” and the klezmer tune “Frailock” on their debut album. On “Se” they tackle a medley of “N’Alcordanza,” “Soig’s Plinn,” and “Skolvan Double Plinn,” a musical journey from northwest Spain (Aviles) to northwest France (Brittany) that is highlighted by exquisite playing from Smyth on fiddle, Crawford on flute, Vallely on uilleann pipes, Hutchinson on double bass, and Edey on nylon-string guitar. Only the slightly surging blare of Karl Ronan’s trombone work intrudes on that track.

Cheeky humor surfaces in Lunasa’s name for the three-tune medley “The Dingle Berries,” in which the Kerry connection is bolstered with the inclusion of “Padraig O’Keeffe’s,” a melody associated with the Castleisland master fiddler. The band’s playing in this medley is bracing and bouncing, evoking a set dance atmosphere with music meant to move feet.

Amid such other floor-battering medleys as “Kalyana/Above in the Garret/Leckan Mor” and “Bolton St./The Millstream/Loophead Lighthouse” are tracks of moody loveliness: “Showacho/Portobello,” led by Vallely’s piping, and “Glentrasna,” written by Lunasa with Edey and based on an old strathspey.

Also played at an enticing, temperate tempo is the pairing of “Across the Black River,” a Kevin Burke tune recorded by Burke with Ged Foley on “In Tandem” (see my review in last week’s column), and “Iain MacDonald’s,” composed by Cape Breton’s Dan Hughie MacEachern.

Some critics may regard “Se” as an album of transition from Lunasa, especially in their enlistment of three guitarists (Conor Brady is the third) as rhythm partners for upright bass player Trevor Hutchinson. Preserving the band’s famed rhythm is nothing to sniff at. But Meehan and Edey in particular do their jobs admirably, and the overall accomplishment of this CD makes moot that concern.

Each of Lunasa’s five previous recordings represented a step up for the band–first in attaining and then maintaining their status as Ireland’s most impressive instrumental traditional group. “Se” takes them even higher.