Irish music fans are well aware of the high-quality, well-balanced show that trad supergroup Lúnasa puts on. Theirs is serious music for the journey, but it’s music that’s couched in an easy playfulness that belies how complex and different what they do really is. This difference was readily apparent the Monday evening before St. Patrick’s Day at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, where the group settled in before a full and engaged audience for two long sets.
The music was brilliant. Monday’s set list represented their well-crafted and modern ideas about narrative and dynamics in traditional music in a very fulfilling way. Tunes like the upbeat and percussive “Morning Nightcap” let Sean Smith’s fiddle and Trevor Hutchinson’s bass shine, while Sean, Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely’s low whistles on “The Last Pint” illuminated the tune’s beautifully plaintive melody and left the audience dazzled.
Readers will be happy to know the legend of Kevin Crawford’s on-stage banter remains fully intact. Everyone in his universe is fair game – family, friends, bandmates, snooker adversaries, the odd bits of furniture he’s crashed on over the years – and nobody was left out on Monday. After entertaining with both his music and words onstage, he seemed to make it a point to talk to nearly everyone who remained after the show, even making special time for a small group of young, talented musicians from the NYC session scene (including two members of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra).
One of evening’s high points came late in the show’s second half with a Crawford feature on “The Hula Hoop,” a tune set taken from his just-released CD “Carrying the Tune.” On Monday he was tastefully accompanied by the group’s new guitarist Ed Boyd (ex-Flook). On the album, he’s joined by John Doyle (guitar and bouzouki), Mick Conneely (bouzouki) and Brian Morrissey (bodhrán). “Carrying the Tune” is an exquisite declaration from the tradition’s top shelf. Doyle’s percussive approach and expansive harmonic palette is a perfect foil to Crawford’s driving playing, especially on tracks like “The Clare Connection” and “The Dear Irish Boy.” I highly recommended this CD, and it was great to hear it represented at the Highline show on Monday.
Cillian Vallely provided a couple of the evening’s other musical highlights. One was an outstanding and sensitively delivered version of the slow air “Port Na bPúcaí” (a tune associated with the Blasket Islands), which was the talk of the line of musicians standing against the back wall. Vallely also took the lead on “Snowball,” a set that appears on the group’s most recent album “Lá Nua.” But before they started, Crawford predictably wasted no time in singling out Cillian’s wife Katy in the audience, noting that Vallely wrote “Ciara’s Dance,” the first of the three tunes in the set, and named it after their oldest daughter (who is a dancer herself). A proud-looking Vallely fired into the tune brilliantly, and was then joined by the rest of the group on the set’s final two tunes, Johnny McCarthy’s “Burning Snowball” and Tommy Cunniffe’s “Road to Reel.”
An impressive band to see live, Lúnasa is on an East Coast tour of the U.S. throughout March.