Band’s Flutist Gets Wiggy
By Earle Hitchner
[Published on October 10, 2007, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
After 19 concerts in 22 days, it’s understandable why Lunasa would want to let their hair down for the 20th and final concert of their autumn U.S. tour that featured an educational component underwritten by Culture Ireland.
Did I say “hair down”? Make that “hair up.”
In the dressing room Kevin Crawford, the band’s flute, whistle, and bodhran player, found a large, blond, ringlet-raining wig and wore it on stage at Bodles Opera House. Imagine a mad-scientist hybrid of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Kate Rusby. It was hilarious.
Inside this cozy, barnlike, post-and-beam venue that once served as a horse carriage factory dating back to the mid-19th century on Main Street in Chester, Orange County, N.Y., Lunasa’s Sept. 30 performance combined brilliant music with plenty of hijinks, mainly from Crawford.
Besides the blond wig blithely bobbing as he played, Crawford cracked several jokes, including this one about the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, Clare: “We call it Willie Week, and musicians who hang around the following week call it Weak Willie.” Regarding a long list he received by e-mail from his Clare-residing wife for Clinique products to be purchased at nearby Woodbury Commons factory outlets, Crawford quipped, “You got to give credit where money is due.”
He also did an absolutely spot-on, sidesplitting impression of Kiltyclogher, Leitrim-born fiddle master Ben Lennon. Crawford’s mimicry of Lennon’s deep bass voice and deliberate way of speaking was so faithful that I thought he was channeling the great fiddler, who actively plays in Ireland. (I was also informed that Crawford mimics me with wicked fidelity and corrosive fun in the tour van. Now you know why I never travel on the road with musicians.)
If the humor rode high this night, the music rode higher. The quintet’s trademark mix of drive and intricate layering was immediately established with the concert kickoff of “The Wedding Reel/Morning Nightcap/The Malbay Shuffle” reels.
A lighter mood followed with the whistle playing of Crawford on the first of three jigs, “Kalyana/Above in the Garret/Leckan Mor,” the last of which was composed by Lunasa uilleann piper Cillian Vallely. The jigs grew progressively more forceful, as the band created a wordless narrative arc through an imaginative use of fluctuating dynamics and cross-hatching harmonics. No matter how attractive a melody might be, the band would not allow their audience to drift into automatic-pilot reverie. In many medleys, at least one instrument, whether Crawford’s flute, Sean Smyth’s fiddle, or Vallely’s pipes, intentionally veered off the melodic spine, adding adventure and surprise to the overall impact. No Irish traditional band today does this better than Lunasa. They reward attentive listening.
Crawford’s tender flute playing of the slow air “A Stor Mo Chroi” gravitated to Junior Crehan’s fling “Stack of Rye” and then to the slip jig “Ladies, Step Up to Tea,” which featured some nimble fingerpicking by guitarist Paul Meehan.
In the medley of “Michael McDermott’s Favorite/Tuttle’s Reel/Spoil the Dance,” Crawford, Smyth, and Vallely initially played low whistles. Then Smyth switched to fiddle, later followed by Crawford to flute, and then Vallely to uilleann pipes, all executed without letup. Propelled on rhythm by Meehan on guitar and Trevor Hutchinson on upright bass, the arrangement yielded delightful dividends in contrapuntal playing, another integral part of Lunasa’s style.
Meehan opened with a brief flatpicked guitar solo on “Aoibhneas Eilis Ni Cheallaigh,” on which the entire band soon joined, and that segued into “Jimmy Ward’s” and L.E. McCullough’s “Not Safe With a Razor.” Lunasa showed well-earned confidence in negotiating a tempo shift, using the point of departure as a signal of excitement to come. And it did.
The quintet flexed their dance band muscles with “The Hop Slide/Padraig O’Keefe’s/Denis Murphy’s/Trip to Dingle,” a Sliabh Luachra-flavored medley of two slides and two polkas guaranteed to move the feet.
Then Lunasa played “Across the Black River,” a lovely, loping melody learned from fiddler Kevin Burke, and that was capped by two Nova Scotian tunes, “Sandpit” and “John McDonagh’s.” The low whistle weave of Crawford, Smyth, and Vallely was especially captivating.
Concluding the first half of the concert was the title track of their 2001 album, “The Merry Sisters of Fate,” picked as the best Celtic/British Isles release of that year by the Association for Independent Music in the U.S. This was a display of unstoppered, hard-charging energy, with Hutchinson’s inventive bass playing a distinctive element.
The concert’s second half launched with reels, “The Ballivanich Reel/The Boy in the Boat/The Stone of Destiny,” played at a measured but still animated pace.
A slip jig learned from West Limerick concertinist Tim Collins yielded to “Road to Barga,” written by Cillian Vallely in a tricky 7/8 time signature and performed by the band with flawless panache.
The band’s attraction to the unusual or exotic was much more obvious in the medley of an Asturian air, “Aires de Pontevedra,” and “Muineira de Casu,” begun in delicacy and ending with high-octane punch.
Standout solos from Smyth on fiddle, Vallely on pipes, and Meehan on flatpicked guitar brought further variety, while Pierre Bensusan’s “Last Pint” hornpipe and the reels “Fleur de Mandragore/Ash Plant/Siobhan O’Donnell’s” retained their luster from 1997 when Lunasa issued them on their debut album.
The encore of “The Butlers of Glen Avenue/Sliabh Russell/Cathal McConnell’s” expertly cascaded from jigs to a polka. Crawford’s introduction of that final medley cited the composer of the first tune, Tony Sullivan, who had trained his dog to ornament it with a couple of well-placed woofs. Inside Bodles Opera House, which has offered live entertainment since 1985, Crawford provided the woofs.
On this night, before an appreciative crowd in the hinterland of New York State, Lunasa proved again why they are Ireland’s finest all-instrumental traditional band. The waggishness and “wigginess” of Crawford fortified the fun.