Lúnasa provided another landmark event at Carnegie Hall on Friday night.
By Daniel Neely
It was an exciting weekend for Irish music in New York City. On Sunday, the Sanctuary Sessions took place across the country and I’m happy to report a robust local turnout – more on that next week, though! This column actually turns to last Friday, when trad supergroup Lúnasa, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, performed to a sold out house at Carnegie Hall’s Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall. Lúnasa is one of the great Irish groups going and although we have the benefit of seeing them relatively frequently (two members live in New York and the band itself seems to pass through each year on tour), their concerts are always exciting, landmark events. However Friday was special because the band responded to the venue and its history with a brilliant evening of music, one that few who attended will ever forget.
Lúnasa’s performance on Friday was the latest in a long and distinguished line of Irish music happenings at Carnegie. It appears to have first featured there in 1903, when Carnegie was the location of the New York Gaelic Society’s annual Feis Ceoil agus Seanachus. Among the night’s performers was the great piper Patsy Touhey. Irish events happened there regularly over subsequent decades: in May, 1916, for example, the Irish-born composer Victor Herbert led an evening to honor the 15 Irishmen put to death after the Rising; in March 1923, the Irish tenor Colin O’More performed; in November 1931 the legendary tenor John McCormack performed; and in May 1947 the popular tenor John Feeney took the spotlight.
It’s probably no stretch to say that no one did more for Irish music at Carnegie than Carmel Quinn, the singer and entertainer from Dublin, who ushered in a lasting and diverse era of Irish entertainment there. For over two decades, beginning in 1956, she staged an annual St. Patrick's Day show in which she presented the finest in Irish culture, including the Tulla Ceili Band, the McNiff Dancers, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Royal Showband, Leo Rowsome, New York’s O'Carolan Minstrels and many, many more. Carnegie Hall was even the location for two influential albums, one by the Clancys with Tommy Makem and one by Quinn herself. These successes kept open the door for Irish-themed events in the 1980s, ‘90s and beyond, when major acts like the Chieftains, Altan, and others appeared there with some regularity.
This is the background that Lúnasa stood before as they embarked on an evening of high octane music-making in front of a sold-out house. It seemed liked New York’s entire Irish music fraternity was there in support, but there were also a large number of unfamiliar faces, many of whom were likely not all that well acquainted with traditional music at all, which was great to see.
And Lúnasa delivered a fantastic show. The band’s flute player and front man Kevin Crawford was in excellent form all night, providing both superior music and smart banter that kept the crowd well pleased and rolling with laughter. Fiddler Colin Farrell and uilleann piper Cillian Vallely matched Crawford’s melodic energy well throughout, while guitarist Ed Boyd and bassist Trevor Hutchinson held down the rhythm and harmony with rock solid, unshakable confidence.
The show included some of the band’s best loved sets, including “Ryestraw,” “Casu,” “The Breton Set,” “The Minor Bee” and, of course, “Morning Nightcap.” Others were relatively new, such as the fine “Sinead Máire’s,” which comes from piper Cillian Valley’s recent, brilliant “Raven’s Rock” album. There were also a couple of outstanding sets, such as “Bob’s Hole in One” and “The Dregs,” which are new and yet to be recorded. Overall, it was a great, balanced musical selection.
The exceptional singer Karan Casey joined the band periodically over the evening. Casey sang fabulously on songs like “Sixteen Come Sunday” and “Lovely Annie” (which she wrote about her mother), but the evening’s great highlight was her performance of “The King’s Shilling.” An anti-war song, it was presented as a statement about the importance of social justice and as a way of shedding light on the weekend’s “Sanctuary Sessions” action for civil rights. Casey’s delivery was expressive and moving and commanded loud applause from the audience.
The group invited frequent collaborator guitarist Patrick Doocey to the stage to join them at the end of the second set and he stayed out for the two encores, “The Creggan White Hare,” which included Casey, and “The Stolen Purse,” which brought an evening full of great music to a climactic end. Lúnasa put on a thrilling show. The band played with a sense of confident abandon that delighted the audience and reminded them of why they’re so good live. Zankel Hall proved an excellent space for them, its clear sight lines, comfortable seating, and excellent overall sound doing a superb job to put the band’s sound forward. The performance fueled the palpable sense of pride going around, that a band with such strong local ties was representing the Irish community so well at Carnegie. An absolute must see if they come to your town. To learn more about Lúnasa, their tour and their 20th anniversary happenings, visit www.lunasa.ie.