By Earle Hitchner
Readers of this column know how I disdain comparisons of today's Irish traditional groups with the Bothy Band. But I also realize that a kind of license to compare Lunasa with the Bothy Band came from former member Matt Molloy, who apparently said that Lunasa reminded him "of a band I used to play with." I demur on the premise that true greatness is not replicable. But it is inspirational, and I would concede that the Bothy Band probably inspired Lunasa to their own level of unreplicable achievement.
Ask yourself: What other groups sound like Lunasa today? None, I would argue, and those who try usually come off as Lunasa-lite, no matter how impressive the talent.
Now imagine Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Mark Connor on violin, and Edgar Meyer on bass tackling the Bothy Band's famed performance of the Irish traditional reels "The Green Groves of Erin / The Flowers of Red Hill." Imagine no more: That trio recorded those reels on "Appalachia Waltz" in 1996 and thanked the Bothy Band in a liner note. It's a valiant, virtuosic effort from a trio of indisputably towering talent, but it still falls well short of the mark set by the Bothy Band's own track on their classic 1975 debut recording.
So let's desist on insisting that Lunasa or any other gifted group today is the new incarnation of the Bothy Band. Insist more sensibly, comfortably, and credibly on this: Lunasa is instrumentally unsurpassed among all full-time traditional bands in Ireland today.
Since 1997, the group has released ten albums, including a compilation, "The Story So Far"; a shared project with 28 Leitrim musicians, "The Leitrim Equation"; and a 2002 reissue (with a bonus track) of the band's stunning debut, "Lunasa." The new album, "La Nua" (Irish for "New Day"), is the first on Lunasa Records, their newly launched imprint, and it is one of the most enjoyable and accomplished recordings from Lunasa to date and easily the finest instrumental recording I've heard so far this year.
The hallmarks of Lunasa's sound include a hypnotically driving rhythm from Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Paul Meehan on guitar and bouzouki, virtuosic lead melody playing by Kevin Crawford on flute and whistles, Sean Smyth on fiddle and whistles, and Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and whistles, an uncanny ability to pause suddenly in a tune and resume with almost a wink to listeners, a supreme confidence to overlap the end of a tune played mainly on one instrument with the beginning of the next tune played mainly on another instrument, and a flawless use of dynamism and counterpoint with piquant accents, delectable drones and sustains, and shaped, moment-to-moment ornaments to create a rich, deep, detailed, inventively traditional music.
That sound only works if each member contributes unstintingly, and on "La Nua" Lunasa's sound clearly works. The quintet continue to keep their music fresh while also maintaining their sonic trademark. Beoga, a brilliant, originally all-instrumental band, eventually brought in a gifted singer, Niamh Dunne, to bolster diversity and appeal, and it has worked splendidly for them. But Lunasa has steadfastly resisted the temptation to take on a full-time vocalist. Their mission remains the same: to make it new each time, using instruments other than the human voice.
"La Nua" opens with "The New Day March," one of five tunes composed by Kevin Crawford, and is followed by "Ryestraw" and "An Old Woman Would." The arrangement is imaginative, and the playing mixes nuance and energy from Crawford's whistle, Vallely's pipes, Smyth's fiddle, Meehan's guitar, and Hutchinson's bass. Crawford's whistle and Smyth's fiddle playing in particular lay down the melody while also injecting improvisational flurries that, true to the Lunasa sound, catch the ear mostly in passing. It invariably prompts a "did I just hear what I heard?" reaction from listeners. I can't tell you how many times I hit "pause," "reverse search," and "play" on my CD player to hear that more closely. Lunasa is one of the very few bands who amply reward such dissection. (Do this only under headphones; it will irritate anyone else listening to loudspeakers.)
Another Lunasa trait is multiple low whistles playing together, often in unison, sometimes plying different lines, all woven into something uniquely theirs. That trait is obvious in "The Raven's Rock / Ruby's Reel / The Beehive," a medley beginning with a tune by Cillian Vallely (he also has five of his own compositions on this CD), followed by another Crawford tune and one by Nollaig Casey. Adding to the blend is guest Gerry O'Beirne's National Steel Guitar playing.
Breton, Galician, and Asturian musical traditions have always fascinated Lunasa, and Brittany in northwest France and Galicia in northwest Spain are particularly vital parts of global Celtic music. The band embraces those traditions again in the medleys "Tadin-Tinaketa / Marche des Charbonniers / Ridees Six Temps" and "Marcha Processional du Corpus de Pontevedra / Pasacorredoires de Mustad a Millares / Muniera Carcarosa." Each medley retains the distinctive character of its native tradition and gains the distinctive Lunasa touch, a potent combination by any reckoning.
Feverishly hard-core traditional in performance is the medley "Joe Tom's / Supernose / Buntata's Sgadan." This is statement playing by Lunasa, reminding us that the band's technique is deeply rooted in the Irish tradition even when the tunes may be non-Irish.
There is not one weak or wobbly track on "La Nua." In effect, it's an album of highlights, including Crawford's tender flute playing on "Tune for Dad," commemorating the recent passing of his father; "East Village Days / Timmy's Place / Doc Holliday's," a medley of Vallely tunes; "Ciara's Dance / Burning Snowball / Road to Reel"; and "Inverness County Reel / The Beauty Spot / The Shore House Reel."
It's a new label and "new day" for Lunasa, whose capacity to keep surprising us helps to make their sound unreplicable.
The motto of the Persuasions, an a cappella group I have enjoyed for decades, is "We still ain't got no band." The unspoken motto of Lunasa is just as tantalizing: "We still ain't got no singer." For both groups, I wouldn't want it any other way.
"La Nua" is Lunasa in peak form.
The album (cat. no. LRCD 001) is available at www.lunasa.ie.
Lunasa will be performing on April 16 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., April 17 at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass., April 19 at 8 p.m. at the Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St., NYC (212-414-5994), and April 23 at 8 p.m. with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill at Pollak Theatre, Monmouth U., 400 Cedar Ave., West Long Branch, N.J. (732-571-3512).
Grainne Murphy, a talented fiddler with an impressive new album out, "Short Stories," will be holding her CD release party with several guests, including the Pride of the Subway Ceili Band, at 7:30 p.m. on Sun., April 18, at Arlene's Grocery, 95 Stanton St., NYC (212-995-1652).