Left to right: Kevin Crawford

Lúnasa looms large

Top Irish band playing Cranbrook's Key City Theatre April 16

Barry Coulter

It’s only a short, quick-hit trip to Western Canada but it’s generated a lot of buzz.

Lúnasa, generally considered the top Irish music band on the planet today, is playing concerts in Edmonton and Calgary next week, which quickly sold out. Alberta fans of the band are now contacting the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook, where Lúnasa is playing on Saturday, April 16.

Seán Smyth (fiddle and low whistles), Kevin Crawford (flute, low whistles and tin whistles), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes and low whistles), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass) and the Ed Boyd (guitar), play traditional and original Irish music with new rhythmic complexities and harmonic sophistication. As one of Ireland’s famous musical exports, the band is constantly touring. Member Kevin Crawford took the time to talk to the Townsman from New England, where Lúnasa currently finds itself.

“We’re absolutely excited to be coming back to (the Rocky Mountain area), Crawford said, somewhere between Portland, Maine, and Boston. “We haven’t been to Cranbrook, but we’ve been to Banff, and we just love that area.”

Irish music, formal and traditional, experienced a renaissance in the ’60s and ’70s in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and an immense surge in global popularity in the 1990s — not least, Crawford admits, because of the success of Riverdance.

“It had a big period on the back of Riverdance  — many people who would not have otherwise been exposed to Irish music came across it that way,” Crawford said.  Many of them dug deeper into the heritage, and more of the traditional stuff and came across it that way, and they’ve stayed with it.

“We have certainly have enjoyed seeing the numbers up in terms of popularity. It’s been happening for a long time — it’s been growing from the ‘60s, ‘70s onwards — the rise of Planxty, the Bothy Band, the Chieftains, and all that.

What keeps Irish music alive, fresh and current is the interest among young players, Crawford said — in Ireland and around the world. It is a genre they take to readily.

Here’s a global problem, it seems — in Cranbrook and in Ireland, anyway. Lots of great players, not many venues to play.

“It’s a great scene (in Ireland and the U.K.)  in terms of people making music and inventing music and coming up with great things,” Crawford said. “There isn’t a platform, as such, to perform, which is a shame. There isn’t a circuit to keep bands active. You do have to tour and hit the road.

“And thankfully North America is very supportive and very knowledgeable about Irish music. So we’re lucky that we can tap into it — and it’s what we love to do.”

The pub session still plays a major part in Irish music, Crawford said — “musicians getting together in a social kind of environment, playing music and bouncing ideas off each other. And that is really what keeps the whole thing alive in terms of getting younger people to keep playing.

“I can’t see that ever changing. The session, when it’s right, is the best form of music, if all the elements are there. People just off the cuff playing tunes, and there’s no pressure, no expectations — and it’s such a natural environment for great things to happen, and they do frequently and regularly.”

But there is another side of the coin.

“In Ireland, our problem has always been that the session is the backbone, but the session is also the death knell of concerts.

“People are almost spoiled. They don’t have to go to a theatre or a venue to hear Irish bands playing because they know they can go to a bar down the road and hear traditional Irish music played very well.”

A concert is very different from a session, Crawford said. It’s a different art form, with different ways of people really developing the music.

“A session is one thing, but you don’t really get to hear the craft. With a band onstage, you really hear all the nuances, the instrumentation and arrangements, all the things you work into it.

“With some Irish bands, their formula is almost like a session onstage. If that’s the case, then you’re better off seeing that band playing in a session — it’s the right environment for that sound. The greatest bands have something different going on — it’s not just a group of guys playing a melody and a couple of guys banging away with a bodhran and a guitar. There are things you would only really hear on a recording or in a theatre with groups like that.”

Irish music — and Celtic music in general — has served to influence other genres of music, like rock, or country. Is the reverse true? Has Irish music with all its formal traditionalism taken in some aspects of rock, or jazz?

“We’re all listening to so much stuff these days it has to have some bearing on the music that you make,” Crawford said. “40 or 50 years ago, music wasn’t so accessible and people only really had what was around them as a reference.

“These days, we’re travelling more, and everything you ever wanted to hear is there at the click of a button. Certainly those influences have made their way into Irish music.”

But for Crawford, that can be a fine line too easily crossed.

“I think the trick is marrying (other genres) with the traditions, without them becoming superimposed — like just throwing a bit of reggae on top of traditional Irish music. That’s my bugbear — a lot of the time they don’t go for the subtle approach —’Celtic Rock,’ if you like, is a genre I don’t like, it’s like beating someone of the head with both elements.”

There have been bands, Crawford says, who’ve in his view have successful combined Irish music with rock.

“I’m not against that development, and we’re kind of doing it in our own little way, with double bass and guitar. But it wouldn’t be as obvious.”

Crawford cites Lúnasa’s bass player, Trevor Hutchison, who came to the band as more of a rock player.

“He listened to the Irish tunes and carved out a way of playing bass that wasn’t disrespectful to the traditions — he didn’t just throw bass or rock and roll licks over Irish tunes.

“… He listens to the tunes and he hears the underlying groove. Irish music is very rhythmical and groovy, and you can always find a new groove if you listen to the tunes. And he pulls from that and builds on that. It’s kind of a more organic way of doing it.”

Bands playing Irish music have a massive body of work to choose from — centuries of tunes, not to mention the ongoing creation of  exciting new original material.

“It’s gotten easier, to be honest,” Crawford said, of how the band selects or composes its own repertoire. “Initially we were trying to pool material from every possible proceeding period of the tradition. It got easier when we started to write our own stuff. Over time you get to figure out a little better what has a stronger chance of working and what doesn’t.

“In the early days we would literally throw everything on the table and work through it and discard 90 per cent of it, and it would be a long drawn out process, and an often painful experience. Now it’s a little bit better. There’s a couple of us in the band who write tunes, and I thing we’re better able at this stage to write tunes that have a better chance of lasting the course. And we’re always listening, and always hunting for things we can call our own.”

Lúnasa plays the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Saturday, April 16. Showtime 7:30 p.m.

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