Celtic superstars

Irish music supergroup Lunasa is stopping in Reno as part of a tour that will take them from Wolf Trap to the World Trade Center

Lunasa may not be well-known to the general public, but to fans of Celtic music, the band is a supergroup.

Lunasa may not be well-known to the general public, but to fans of Celtic music, the band is a supergroup.

Photo by Sienna Wildfield

Lunasa may not be a household name in the Mountain States, but in areas where traditional Irish music has a large following, the name is spoken with definite reverence.

No less an authority than the Irish Voice has declared Lunasa “the hottest acoustic Irish band on the planet,” while the Boston Herald calls them “the new Celtic royalty,” saying that the band “rules the Celtic folk world.” The band’s debut album, 1999’s Otherworld, was crowned “Album of the Year” by both the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo, and garnered top honors from the Hot Press and The New York Times.

And to think that on July 11, Celtic music lovers in the Reno area will have the chance to see them play in Wingfield Park as part of Artown for a paltry $3.

Lunasa is coming to town as part of the Food for the Soul world music concert series, passing through the Truckee Meadows as the band crisscrosses the country on a tour that will find them playing at Wolf Trap and the World Trade Center, among other prestigious venues. Lunasa is also opening several shows for contemporary folk superstar Mary Chapin Carpenter.

The band’s moniker is derived from the name of an ancient Irish harvest festival, and the combination of joy and hard work that the name evokes seems like a natural fit for this energetic young group. Lunasa consists of five members: fiddler Sean Smyth, guitarist Donogh Hennessy, flutist Kevin Crawford, piper Cillian Vallely and string bassist Trevor Hutchinson. Their playing style is traditional, but with a twist (bass players, for example, are unusual in Irish music), and on their albums, they tend to bring in such relatively exotic instruments as steel guitar, cello and even flugelhorn.

The word “supergroup” tends to get thrown around in reviews and news stories about Lunasa, and with good reason. The band’s members all have distinguished pedigrees. Vallely was the piper for the touring Riverdance ensemble; Smyth has been an All-Ireland champion on both fiddle and tin whistle; Crawford is a former member of the highly regarded ensemble Moving Cloud; Hennessy and Hutchinson are both veterans of the Sharon Shannon Band; and Hutchinson was a member of the Irish rock band the Waterboys for several years.

The band’s virtuosity, along with the highly varied backgrounds of its members, contributes to a slightly unusual take on the Irish tradition. Even when playing strictly traditional material, Lunasa has a sound that is distinctly its own. Crawford says that the “Lunasa sound” has become quite recognizable.

“There are a couple of things that make us different,” he says. “Firstly, I think the mix of musical styles and backgrounds makes for an interesting sound. Secondly, our approach to arranging and performing tunes or sets of tunes is fairly fresh—add to these the notion that we don’t have a singer, and I suppose it makes us a little different.”

As is traditional with Irish music, in performance, the band will typically string several tunes together to create a set of reels or jigs—a gambit that gives dancers more uninterrupted time on the floor and also helps to maintain listener interest. In Irish music there is little emphasis on harmony; instead, the melody-line instruments (flute, pipes, fiddle) play essentially in unison, varying the melody slightly and ornamenting it freely, while the rhythm instruments (guitar, frame drum, bass) keep things lively underneath.

Those who are new to Irish music may be surprised by how different the uillean (or union) pipes sound compared to the more commonly heard Scottish highland pipes. Where highland pipes—whose original purpose was to inspire warriors and frighten enemies—are boisterous and rather shrill, uillean pipes are softer and more mournful-sounding. They are also notoriously difficult to play and, because of their elaborate system of drones, registers and bellows, must be played sitting down. Cillian Vallely is a very highly regarded piper, and although he is the newest member of the group, his playing has become a centerpiece of the band’s sound.

Kevin Crawford plays another instrument that may seem a bit unusual to American folk music fans: the flute. In Irish music, the flute most commonly used is a wooden one, rather than the metal instrument used in classical music, and it’s played in a very distinctive style: Irish flutists play with a reedy, slightly harsh tone and tend to play long strings of notes with a single breath, separating and articulating the notes with elaborate melodic ornaments. The open holes on an Irish flute make it possible to slide between notes in a way that would be impossible with a standard keyed flute. Crawford is one of the best flutists on the traditional Irish scene at the moment, as well as an accomplished player of the bodhran, a traditional Irish frame drum.

Fiddler Sean Smyth is the third member of the band’s melodic front line. In addition to the honors he has garnered as a soloist, his resume includes stints playing with the great bouzouki player Donal Lunny and the folk-pop band the Saw Doctors.

The Food for the Soul world music show will be Lunasa’s first in Reno, but the members of the band are no strangers to the United States.

“America has always been very special for me, personally, because it was the first place I came to when I first started touring professionally as a musician,” says Crawford. “The audiences in the U.S. are both knowledgeable and loyal.”

The band will also play shows in Holland and France later this summer, and a tour of Japan is in the works for the fall.