Lunasa at the Majestic Theater

Lunasa was introduced to the 230 fans at the Majestic Theater as “one of the hottest Celtic bands” performing in the world today. But on this unseasonably cool spring evening, frontman and flautist Kevin Crawford said “we’re the coldest band in the world tonight.”

You wouldn’t have known it from the way their fingers flew. The five-man Celtic ensemble played for more than two hours, performing a dozen or more medleys of jigs, reels and other instrumental numbers from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Asturias and Galicia. Most were selections from their two albums, although they worked in a few unrecorded tunes. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

The Majestic Theater, a renovated movie theater that seats about 300, is a community-supported, non-profit arts center that hosts everything from children’s theater to small-scale opera productions. It has a good, all-purpose ambience with comfortable seats, decent ventilation, good sightlines and adequate acoustics, and was well-suited for the performance.

Lunasa’s members are well-versed in the Celtic traditions, and they know their tunes inside-out. All of the members have played, recorded and toured with other well-known bands, including Sharon Shannon’s, The Waterboys, Donal Lunny’s Coolfin, and Moving Cloud.

This band’s calling-card is its emphasis on the rhythmic aspects of Celtic music, to which it adds a jazzy, swinging element. Much of the credit for the driving rhythm goes to guitarist Donogh Hennessy, whose instrument at times performed more the function of a bhodran than a guitar, and bassist Trevor Hutchinson’s playing, replete with jazzy glissandos and syncopation, also emphasizes the swinging rhythm.

Most of Lunasa’s tunes feature the fiddle (Sean Smyth), uilleann pipes (Cillian Vallely on tour) and Crawford’s flute, all playing the melody together. It’s uncanny how fast the fingers of all three can fly, as they play these intricate melodies, apparently note-for-note, in utter unison. Crawford occasionally threw in sustained notes, or went off on little jazzy side-excursions while the pipes and fiddle carried the melody. On such occasions, and when he was soloing, Crawford’s warm, mellow tone and phrasing reminded me of none other than Hubert Laws, a popular American jazz flautist in the Seventies.

Maybe it was because they were trying to stay warm, but in the first half of the program, Lunasa tended to have one level — intense. I was about to say something of the sort during the intermission, when my companion for the evening (who has been listening to Celtic music for at least a decade longer than I have) beat me to it. “Their transitions are really smooth, but they don’t seem to have a lot of dynamic range,”she said. “This music has a lot of emotional range to it, and one of the places you can highlight that that is in the transitions, but they’re not taking advantage of that.”

I don’t think the band was eavesdropping, but when they came out after the intermission, their performance seemed significantly more varied in terms of dynamics. There was more extended soloing, the songs started off with one or more instrument being featured before adding the others one by one, the tempo showed more variety, and some of the musicians even swapped instruments once in a while. Smyth plays a mean tinwhistle, and Crawford is no slouch with a bhodran.

However, except for Crawford and Smyth, who were both quite personable, the band members themselves didn’t seem very dynamic. None of the other three musicians interacted much, with either the band or the audience. Piper Vallely mostly stared at a spot on the floor about 12 inches in front of his feet, and slouched, expressionless, in his chair when he wasn’t playing.

Crawford’s warmth and wit, and the band’s lively playing mostly made up for these minor flaws, however, and the crowd brought Lunasa back for an encore, then sent them off with a standing ovation as the house lights came up.

It’s hard to pick out favorite numbers from Lunasa’s performance — partly because they were all good, and partly because the theater was too dark to take legible notes. But among the sets I took particular note of were “O’Carolan’s Welcome/Rolling in the Barrel” from their second album; two different versions of the Breton air “Jizaique”; and “The Noonday Feast/Waterbed/Sully’s No. 6” from their first album. Of the unreleased numbers they played, “Scully Casey’s” started off with a particularly lovely lilting flute solo.

Lunasa puts on a show that’s very much worth seeing for any Celtic music fan.

(Corvallis, Oregon, May 10, 2000)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.