Lúnasa Returns With a Vengeance


By Earle Hitchner

[published in the February 25,2004, issue of the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City.

Last year was often an enervating, exasperating experience for the Irish traditional quintet Lúnasa. Their heated contractual dispute with Green Linnet Records, their former label, became public and tended to overshadow the musical merits of their “Redwood” album, which finished No. 6 in the Irish Echo’s top 10 list for 2003.

If any psychological scars remain from that embittered parting with Green Linnet, they are not detectable in the slightest on Lúnasa’s brand-new CD, “The Kinnitty Sessions.” Due out on March 2, three days before the start of their winter tour, this fifth album from the band is a dazzling re-assertion of individual and collective strengths on Nashville’s Compass Records, which two years ago reissued their 1997 self-titled debut with a couple of previously unreleased tracks.

“The Kinnitty Sessions” was recorded in December 2003 inside Kinnitty Castle near Slieve Bloom Mountains in Co. Offaly. Lúnasa performed in front of a live audience, yet there’s no sound from the audience on the CD. Band introductions, stage patter, and crowd clapping were removed out of concern that Irish radio might be put off by them.

Whatever the rationale, the decision has proved inspiring, for the new album conveys the crispness and intricate layering of the studio with the energy and liberating spirit of a concert.

All this is obvious right from the opener, “Stolen Purse/An Sioda Slide/Brendan McMahon’s Reel.” Cillian Vallely’s uilleann pipes and Kevin Crawford’s flute kick it off, and when Seán Smyth on fiddle, Donogh Hennessy on guitar, and Trevor Hutchinson on bass come in, the fun increases without a loss of focus.

On that track, Crawford’s flute occasionally rises above the melody or sustains notes to add a sense of expectancy, then swoops down like a hawk on the spine of a tune once more. In “Dans Fisel/Ballyogan Reel,” which pairs a Breton dance tune with a Crawford original, Vallely’s piping also floats at times above the melody or stretches a few ascending notes only to dart back down into it.

None of this is gimmickry or gamesmanship. The tension they add in these expertly crafted arrangements is purposeful, imaginative, and highly effective.

Lúnasa’s musical wit likewise pulses through the album. In “Rathlin Island/Sporting Paddy,” Hennessy and Hutchinson, still the best guitar-bass tandem in Irish traditional music today, provide the band’s signature rhythm. It expertly supports and complements the melody instruments while revealing a sly inventiveness and a taste for intrigue. Chopping out chords like so much firewood holds no fascination for these two gifted rhythm players.

In “Scottish Concerto Strathspey/Trip to Windsor/Punch in the Dark,” Mayo-born Seán Smyth delivers one of the most stunning fiddle solos he’s ever recorded. With Hennessy and Hutchinson backing him, Smyth uses all the colors of his palette. The medley begins slowly with the strathspey, then quicksteps into the second tune, where his ornamentation grows in innovation as his bowing grows in intensity. By the time Smyth shifts into the third tune, it’s almost as if he knows how far in the zone he is, that he can risk and win, capping a performance that combines bold, blazing technique with moving lyricism.

Vallely’s unaccompanied piping solo on “The Wounded Hussar” mines the melody with ruminative care. It is a beautifully conceived and executed rendition, full-bodied, unhurried, and unsentimentalized, which makes the emotion he lays bare in the tune all the more powerful.

In lesser hands, the doubling or tripling of whistles can come off as a smile-inducing novelty. But Lúnasa has used this approach smartly and creatively since “The Last Pint” on their first recording, and they use it twice (in “Split Rock” and in “The Four Courts”) on the new album with similarly fresh impact.

A live album where none of the tunes are repeated from previous recordings, “The Kinnitty Sessions” is Lúnasa at their edgy best, taking chances, igniting off each other, and enjoying the craic. The year is only two months old, but this outright triumph of a CD will be hard to top over the next 10 months.