Cover of OtherworldBy Kevin McGuire
IRISH TRAD ensemble Lúnasa have been touring for more than 14 years and are poised to release their seventh studio album Lá Nua through their own Lúnasa Records.
Named after the Celtic harvest of Lughnasa, they first started playing together when fiddle player Sean Smyth, bassist Trevor Hutchinson, and guitarist Donogh Hennessy toured Scandinavia in 1996.
They reconvened in Ireland and broadened their sound by recruiting John McSherry on uilleann pipes and Michael McGoldrick on flute/whistle. In 1998 they released their eponymous debut album to critical acclaim. Allmusic Guide wrote :“Lúnasa’s rhythmic daring and the prominent use of Trevor Hutchinson’s string bass mean the band sounds significantly different from its more trad-oriented contemporaries.”
The band were re-defining Irish traditional music by pushing it in to the melting pot of bluegrass, rhythm‘n’roots, and jazz.
After McGoldrick left to pursue other musical avenues the band called upon flute, tin whistle, and bodhran player Kevin Crawford to join their ranks for an Australian tour. Born in Birmingham to Co Clare parents Kevin returned to Miltown Malbay in the late 1980s.
“Even though I was brought up in England all the people I mixed with were Irish,” Crawford says. “When I came over here to live in 1989 whatever traces of a West Clare accent I had helped me slot straight in.”
The band signed to American independent label Green Linnet Records and this placed them alongside an impressive roster of Irish, Breton, Scottish, Galician, and American musicians. They released the albums Otherworld in 1999, The Merry Sisters of Fate in 2001, and Redwood in 2003 and strengthened their global position by regularly touring the US, Australia, Europe, and Asia.
They were joined by piper Cillian Vallely and were described as an ‘Irish music dream team’. In 2004 Hennessy departed the line-up but Lúnasa continued their musical odyssey.
What has set them apart from their Irish contemporaries is that they have drawn from a vast array of influences and backgrounds. Smyth and Vallely come from noted Irish trad families in Mayo and Armagh; Crawford was exposed to Asian and West Indian music from a young age; and Hutchinson emerged from a rock, jazz, and blues background.
“My influences would largely come from outside of the traditional world,” Trevor told me. “I’d be very much into the jazz players of the 1950s and 1960s. I’d also be very much influenced by the rock players of the 1970s. I’d describe what we do with Lúnasa as trad music with a groove to it.”
The one collective source which the group take their well of inspiration from is Planxty, De Dannan, and The Bothy Band. Smyth remembers his uncle Sean McGarry bringing records Old Hag You Have You Killed Me and The Well Below The Valley to his house in Straide in the 1970s. When he put together Lúnasa in the 1990s he re-discovered his enthusiasm for those albums and aimed to build upon the legacy of Donal Lunny, Matt Molloy, and Paddy Keenan. “You can’t help but be influenced by those groups,” he says.
The Chieftains’ Matt Molloy said Lúnasa “remind me of a band I used to play with”. Yet to assume Lúnasa are simply a new generation Bothy Band would be to miss the point of their music.
“It’s a huge compliment when somebody of the calibre of Matt Molloy makes a comparison between what you do and what was one of the leading forces in Irish traditional music,” Kevin Crawford states. “As time has gone on though we would prefer if that quote wasn’t bandied about as much because we really want to judged on our own sound.”
Crawford expands upon the point by explaining what goes into the making of the Lúnasa sound.
“We draw our music from all the Celtic regions such as the Scottish, Breton, and Galician traditions and from acoustic music from across the globe,” he says .“It helps that we all come from very different backgrounds and we’re not kind of tied down to one particular genre or one particular style.
“Most of us, apart from Trevor, would’ve grown up listening to The Bothy Band and I suppose there is an obvious association there in the fact that the main instruments in both bands are fiddle, pipes, and guitar. Our overall sound though is somewhat different.”
Lúnasa are about bringing on their musical development a step further and looking more to the future than to the past with their new album Lá Nua. Indeed it is a new day in many ways for the group.
“We’ve just become an independent recording act and have set up our own label,” Crawford says. “This is first full album with our new guitarist Paul Meehan and he has brought a new exciting dimension to our sound. So, it’s a new day for our group from many perspectives.”
As part of the promotion for their new release Lúnasa will play the Town Hall Theatre on Sunday May 23 at 8pm. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as a Galway band,” Kevin says. “Our early days as a band were spent there, so we’re very much looking forward to returning”
Tickets for Lúnasa’s Town Hall Concert are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.