Ireland’s all-star quintet Lúnasa has become one of the most sought-after bands on the international Irish music scene. The band’s inventive arrangements and bass-driven grooves are steering Irish acoustic music into surprising new territory. Lúnasa made their worldwide Green Linnet debut in October 1999 with their release Otherworld.
From the start, Lúnasa met with instant acclaim. Their first, self-produced album became an immediate best seller in Ireland, topping Hot Press’ folk charts. International festivals across Europe, Japan and Australia included a main-stage performance in summer 1999 at London’s Guinness Fleadh. On their first American visit, word-of-mouth led to sold-out shows and rave reviews.
Named for an ancient Celtic harvest festival in honor of the Irish god Lugh, patron of the arts, Lúnasa is indeed a gathering of some of the top musical talents in Ireland. Its members have helped formed the backbone of some of the greatest Irish groups of the decade.
Bassist Trevor Hutchinson was a key member of The Waterboys, and later he and guitarist Donogh Hennessy would form the dynamic rhythm section of The Sharon Shannon Band. Fiddler Seán Smyth is an All-Ireland champion who has played with Dónal Lunny’s Coolfin; and Kevin Crawford, considered to be among the finest flutists in Ireland, also plays with the acclaimed traditional group Moving Cloud.
Add to this Otherworld’s guest performers (and original Lúnasa members) uilleann piper John McSherry (Coolfin) and flutist Michael McGoldrick (Capercaillie), and touring member piper Cillian Vallely (of the same talented musical family as brother Niall Vallely of Nomos) and you have the makings of a powerful new band.
Like the younger generation of Nashville musicians such as Béla Fleck or Edgar Meyer, pushing the boundaries of bluegrass into jazz and beyond, Lúnasa arehave been redefining Irish music by going right to the heart of its rhythms. With its distinctive use of the upright acoustic bass — brought front and center by Hutchinson’s remarkable playing — teamed with Hennessey’s percussive guitar, the group seeks out the essential heartbeat of a tune.
“There are lots of great melodies in Irish music but often people don’t hear the rhythms underneath,” says founding member Seán Smyth. “We try to relate the swing or energy out of the music, using new rhythms, letting each instrument add its own unique layer. We’ll play the same tune over and over searching for the groove, exploring it. We let the music find its pulse.”
The result is a sound that, though distinctly Irish in flavor, touches on jazz and other improvisational music forms. Inspired by Ireland’s great 1970s group The Bothy Band, Lúnasa use melodic interweaving of wind and string instruments, pairing flutes, fiddle, whistle and pipes in often breathtaking arrangements.
“I had a vision of the type of music I wanted to create,” says Seán. “In my books, the most influential band was the Bothy Band, who were flute, pipes and fiddle based.”
Seeds for Lúnasa were planted when Seán hooked up with Trevor and Donogh for a short tour of Scandinavia in late1996. The trio clicked so well that back in Ireland, they brought in John McSherry and Michael McGoldrick to record some concerts. A tour of Australia in January 1997 brought Kevin on board, and the band began to take off.
“The response when we started playing at home was just great,” adds Seán. Within several months, they were filling venues with spellbound audiences in Ireland, and began to expand their tours to other parts of the world. After a particularly memorable concert at Matt Molloy’s, a renowned music pub in the West of Ireland, owned by the former-Bothy Band and Chieftains flutist. Molloy himself gave the new band his blessing, remarking “they remind me of a band I used to play with!”
At the end of 1997, the band released their first CD Lúnasa, a mix of concert and studio tracks gathered from their prolific year together. It was immediately hailed as one of the finest, freshest recordings of Irish music in years, called “moving, pulsating, and thrilling to the very marrow” by Folk Roots and “a true must-have disc” by the Irish Voice.
Otherworld, the exciting second album from Lúnasa, is a stunning cycle of instrumentals that captures all the performance intensity for which they’re widely acclaimed. The album impressively fulfills the promise of its title, taking listeners to a realm of Irish music full of imaginative leaps and blazing skill.
original members were Seán Smyth on fiddle and whistle; Kevin Crawford on flute, whistle, and bodhrán; Trevor Hutchinson on bass; Donogh Hennessy on guitar; and Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and low whistle. Guitarist Ed Boyd replaced Donogh Hennessy in 2012.
* Lúnasa (1998)
* Otherworld (Green Linnet Records 1200, 1999)
* The Merry Sisters of Fate (Green Linnet 1213, 2001)
* Redwood (Green Linnet, 2003)
* The Kinnitty Sessions (Compass Records, 2004)
* Sé (Compass Records, 2006)
* Lá Nua (2010)
* Lúnasa With The RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Lunasa Records, 2013)
* Cas (Lunasa Records, 2018)
Web site: www.lunasa.ie
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.