Paul Brandon penned this review.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I first saw Lúnasa.
I had to pause after I wrote that, because, as the cliché says, I still remember it like it was yesterday. The gig, at a now-extinct venue in Brisbane called the Bass Note, was an utter revelation for me. I refer to it as my ‘Kick up the Pants’ gig. I went mainly because of Trevor Hutchinson, and being a huge fan of the Waterboys I wasn’t going to miss a chance to see him play. I’d heard of the other three members– Kevin Crawford (although at that time everyone thought Kevin was Micheal McGoldrick), Donogh Hennessy and Sean Smyth–but didn’t know too much about them. I came away stunned, shaken, rattled, and with a head full of musical monkeys from having just seen four lads perform in the most spectacular, precise, attention-demanding manner. Donogh Hennessy’s powerhouse guitar style utterly changed the way I played the instrument, and in a very real sense, it’s because of him and Lúnasa that I play Irish music today. So Lúnasa have a very special place in my record collection, not to mention my musical soul.
So, 10 years, six records (seven if you count the initial mix release of the debut, I guess), a touring schedule up there with the likes of B.B. King…
And this is the first album without Donogh.
I’m not going to focus on that too much, but it did give me a slightly coloured set of ears when I first listened to it, having gone through the same kind of worry when guitarist John Doyle left Solas. Honestly, he’s missed (his place is ably filled by a rotation of Paul Meehan, Tim Edey and Conor Brady), but there’s just a lack of that dominant fire and that dazzling, angry-looking technique of his, and some of the key changes and tempo shifts seem a little less adventurous. But really, that might just be me and my guitar-influenced imagination.
Sé, (pronounced Shay), is Gaelic for ‘six’, and as well as the obvious meaning, is a lovely great mouthful of a title. For those of you who may be new to Lúnasa, this is a four-piece (Cillian Vallely joined a number of years back on pipes and low whistles) traditional Irish band. Just tunes. Great, great tunes. Fiddle, whistles, flutes, upright bass, pipes, guitar, bodhran, a little piano and trumpet even… The variety is wide but never overwhelming. It’s one of the things that have made Lúnasa what they are today: the ability to undertstand just exactly what a tune needs, without ever overcomplicating matters.
The album kicks off with ‘The Cullybacky Hop,’ which is an original tune by Cillian’s brother Niall, bracketed by a pair of trad tunes, and it’s the usual sparkling Lúnasa affair. There seems to be a progression through the albums toward performing more contemporary material–tunes by the likes of Kevin Burke, Alan Kelly, Maire Breatnach and of course, written by the band themselves–and that’s a wonderful thing, as it lends each record a fresh sound. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear updated and rejigged versions of old tunes, but it’s a delight to listen to new, sparkling material. And while I’m on the subject of listening, this album is slightly different from the previous five in the sense that it’s not a ‘load it up in the car and blast away with a big smile’ kind of thing. This needs to have attention paid to it. It’s actually worth popping on a decent set of headphones and just sitting for a time. Kevin Crawford’s flutes wander all over the place, dropping in truly sublime countermelodies, and some of the low whistle harmonies are just staggering (having three world-class whistle players in one spot is something of an advantage for a band). And it’s all held together by Trevor Hutchinson’s inimitable bass and steady guitar work. I just have to tip my hat to Cillian Vallely, the quiet man of the group. This is almost his album. His piping and whistling are just wonderful, and perhaps more than in the past, he’s stepping up and leading the others on a merry run. There’re no particularly stand-out tunes (such as my favourite ‘Morning Nightcap’ from The Merry Sisters of Fate or ‘The Walrus’ from The Kinnitty Sessions) but rather this is an album of constant excellence. It’s also brilliantly recorded and engineered.
One last thing. As good as Lúnasa albums are, they are but a pale reflection of seeing these guys live. This is a band that I will rearrange my own gigs to make sure I get to see, and that’s saying something, as I love gigging almost as much as coffee.
Let’s hope they continue on to call an album Cead!