Yes, yes, Kevin Crawford says he and his Lúnasa band mates are well aware that their 20th anniversary is coming up in the next year, and they will most assuredly do something to mark the milestone.
“We’ve only really just started putting out feelers,” said Crawford during a recent stop at Boston College while on tour with his fellow Lúnasan Cillian Vallely and guitarist (and Worcester native) Patrick Doocey. “We just don’t know the direction yet. We want to celebrate, but also want to have something to market.”
That would seem to suggest, oh, perhaps making a new album?
“Well, we haven’t recorded a studio album in a good chunk of time,” said Crawford, laconically. “I guess there is a certain expectation we do a new one.”
He’ll get no argument from the many Lúnasa supporters who these past two decades have savored the band’s layered, harmonically sophisticated and quite modern treatment of Irish traditional music, marked by tight – but not suffocating – precise and polished arrangements yet full of passion and power. It’s been three years since their last release, a live album of previous material enhanced by the presence of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and six since their previous studio recording, “Lá Nua,” in which the band continued to expand its range beyond Irish tradition, incorporating Breton, Galician, and Asturian music as well as original material.
But time – especially for things like making new albums – is a particularly valuable commodity where Lúnasa is concerned. That’s because its members – Crawford (flute, whistle), Vallely (uilleann pipes, whistle), Sean Smyth (fiddle, whistle), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass) and Ed Boyd (guitar) – are involved in numerous other collaborations, projects, and enterprises. Crawford, besides playing with Vallely (who’s just finished up a new solo album), also is part of the trio The Teatotallers with fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist John Doyle. Boyd tours with the marvelous quartet Flook and singer Cara Dillon. Hutchinson seems to turn up on about every other album – whether as musician or producer, or both – or concert stage. As for Smyth, when he’s not playing music, he’s busy pursuing his “other” career as a medical doctor.
Meanwhile, over the past few years, Lúnasa has been breaking in a new member, fiddler and tin whistle player Colin Farrell, formerly of Grada, who will sub in as needed for – but perhaps also play with – Smyth.
What with all their other activities, it might’ve been understandable if Lúnasa rang down the curtain. But as Crawford explains, calling quits on something this rewarding is just too difficult.
“There’s a certain pride, a doggedness to the band, I think – we’re just not going to let it go, because it’s our baby. We have a number of other things going on outside Lúnasa, and we obviously get a lot out of them. But there’s really no better vehicle for what we do than Lúnasa. I like the combination of instruments, this marriage of sounds, and it’s different than most other bands.
“I think, for example, the way we use the whistles together, especially when we do the harmonies, is a real hallmark. I’m surprised that more bands haven’t taken on a double bass, because of how it fills out the lower end of the spectrum. We don’t have a bodhran, so that really puts it on the guitar to deliver the rhythm. And there aren’t that many bands that don’t have a singer. I guess you could say our instruments are our voices.”
As sharply defined as their sound might be, by contrast Lúnasa’s history is a bit muddled, at least at the beginning. As Crawford explained, the band “was something else before it was Lúnasa”: a shifting cast of musicians formed to support Smyth on tour following the release of his “Blue Fiddle” album. Crawford joined up in 1996 when the band went to Australia.
“I had no expectations: It was literally just for six weeks,” he said. “When the tour was over, everyone went back to what they were doing. There were a few one-off gigs in 1997, and then we were invited back to Australia – by that time we were calling ourselves ‘Lúnasa’ – and I said, ‘Well, I’ll ride it as long as I can.’ We’d put together a sound I was really interested in, so it seemed a good fit.”
There’s even some ambiguity surrounding their first album, most of which was recorded live during the formational period: The original was released on their own label and licensed to various record companies around the world, but the “official” version was released in 1998 through Compass Records.
Recording projects have in fact come to be the fulcrum on which Lúnasa turns: At a certain point, when the members have accumulated enough ideas (and time), they gather to work them out in the studio. And thus the band repertoire grows, and they’re ready to hit the road.
“Most of our work together seems to go into making an album,” said Vallely. And then when the band prepares to go out on tour, he quipped, “you learn everything from listening to yourself on the recording.”
“It does take us a lot of time, which is probably why we haven’t been in the studio in so long,” Crawford mused. “A lot of other groups don’t work that way, which is fine. We just look at the whole process from a broader pallet, from which to choose the tunes. We probably do over-think things sometimes, but that’s how it is – without having a singer, being all-instrumental all the time, we feel we really need to choose our material carefully. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about whether that tune or this one can be a good fit, and what might we do with it in terms of harmonics and rhythm.
“And then we might play it for a tour or two, then get rid of it.”
Of course, Lúnasa wouldn’t go through all this trouble if its fans didn’t appreciate the results.
“I do think listeners appreciate the investment we make,” said Crawford. “We’ve been very happy to see the loyal following we have in the US, and especially in Boston – I think people here have probably seen about a half-dozen different combinations of Lúnasa over the years.”
Not surprisingly, Lúnasa fans have been wondering about the Smyth/Farrell transition, prompting Crawford to set the record straight. “Sean’s always been part of the band, and he will be until he decides he’s had enough. He’s just in a particularly busy period, but a few years from now the situation might be different. It’ll be kind of like what Altan does: They have an ‘American team’ – with Daithi Sproule as the guitarist – and an ‘Ireland team,’ with Mark Kelly instead of Daithi. So, when we’re on the road in the US, we’ll have Colin with us, but if we have gigs in Ireland it’ll most likely be Sean.”
Or even both. “We did some concerts with [singer/guitarist] Tim O’Brien and had Sean as well as Colin, and the double fiddle thing went very well. It’s another dynamic that, sometimes, we’ll be able to work in.”
Crawford praises Farrell not just for his musical abilities – “He’s got some great tunes, and he’s a fantastic improviser” – but for helping “to keep it fresh – having some new blood coming in keeps things from getting stale. We’ve enjoyed having with us.”
With the start of the band’s third decade nearing, Crawford and Vallely have reflected on the proximity of Lúnasa’s beginnings to the splash “Riverdance” made when it became a worldwide phenomenon at around the same time. Unquestionably, they say, the show – which returned to Boston last month on its own 20th anniversary tour – raised the profile of Irish music as well as Irish dance, and so the mid-to-late 1990s was a pretty serendipitous period to be an Irish musician.
“It was fortunate for Ireland and Irish music that ‘Riverdance’ was the thing that caught on , because everything was so top-quality: the dancers, the musicians, the singers, the whole production,” said Crawford. “A lot of what followed in its wake, frankly, was just not as good; if those were the things that had gotten people’s attention, well, you might have seen a different outcome.
“Where we were concerned, the timing was good, because our arrangements, our production, and our approach to the music had some elements in common with ‘Riverdance’ – even though, of course, we had come up with those on our own – so that probably helped draw some attention to us. In fact, at one theater where the show was, they played our first CD over the sound system while the audience was filing in.
“But at the same time, we knew that something as popular as this could wind up being exploited and imitated, so we worked hard to fashion our own identity and stay true to what we were doing. Because if you are passionate about what you do, and you stick to your values, you’ll find your niche. I think people who have liked our music appreciate that, and so we’ll always have die-hard followers.”
Vallely put it simply. “The reason Lúnasa has lasted,” he said, “is because it’s been successful: It’s been successful in that we’ve been able to create a sound that we can continue to build on and be creative with, and it’s been successful in that people have responded positively to what we’ve done. So as long as this all keeps happening, so will Lúnasa.”