Australian author and Celtic musician Paul Brandon, who wrote of one of the finest fantasy novels of recent years, Swim the Moon, has a new novel, The Wild Reel, coming out this summer. He’s also a great fan of Lúnasa, who are capable of some really wild reels! Now, I know that Paul hasn’t heard this album yet, but I’m certain that he’ll find the very wild reels and jigs here to be quite fine, as The Kinnitty Sessions is the first live recording that this group has released. Paul sent me a recording of a concert they did in Brunswick, Melbourne, way back in 1991. Now, as good as that live sound board recording is, this is far, far better. And if you are a fan of Irish music, this is a must hear album.
As I said in a review of Redwood, ‘Green Man has reviewed all of the previous Lúnasa CDs, which should not surprise you as this is a group that deserves all the attention it gets. (Go read Stephen Hunt’s review of their first three albums before you continue on with this review.) Yes, they are that good. In their own way, their grasp of Irish music matches that of the legendary Moving Hearts, especially in their ability to use traditional music without getting too stuffy.’ Over the past decade, I’ve heard them live at least a half dozen times — they are never less than brilliant, never a scintilla less than fully engaged in giving the audience a performance that everyone there will savour for years afterward. The only other band I’ve ever heard that was that spot on every time they performed was Frifot, the Nordic trio, and they too were amazing live and in recorded form. ‘Tis a rare gift for a band to do well in both settings!
Now, let’s turn to the press release for this album. I’ll admit that most press releases by their very nature are usually matters of hyperbole, but the one Brad San Martin at Compass wrote for The Kinnitty Sessions is quite correct in its assessment of this album: ‘By pinning traditional elements of composition and instrumentation to a surging rhythmic undercurrent, Irish quintet Lúnasa have achieved a new pinnacle of urgency and intricacy, sparking off unprecedented acclaim and notoriety in the process. The Kinnitty Sessions, available on Compass Records March 2nd, is their most dynamic and immediate album yet. Cut before a live audience at Kinnitty Castle in Ireland — with no overdubs or studio trickery — the recording blends the best elements of a studio recording with the energy and spontaneity of a live album. Building on the rock-solid rhythmic foundation of double-bassist Trevor Hutchinson (ex-Waterboys, Sharon Shannon Band) and guitarist Donogh Hennessy (Sharon Shannon Band), piper Cillian Vallely, flutist Kevin Crawford, and fiddler Sean Smyth ride the surging rhythms with impeccable grace — alternating blistering unison passages with episodes of deft counterpoint. Four years of constant touring has elevated their already-formidable skill to peak brilliance, perfectly captured by the unique setting of The Kinnitty Sessions.’
It’s hard to do a truly great live recording, as there’s a temptation in the post-recording process to clean up the tracks so they they match the sound of the band when it’s in a recording studio. The very best I’ve ever heard prior to this release was Little Feat’s Late Night Truck Stop, a radio promo album recorded at Ebbetsfield, Colorado, in July 1973 that later become a legendary bootleg. Far more typical of live recordings is the Pogues’ Streams of Whiskey, a possible bootleg where the recording quality is, at best, suspect. Not here. But that really does reflect the reality that Lúnasa, as noted above, is one of the best live performers that I’ve ever heard, in decades of attending concerts in venues ranging from small, smoky pubs, where it was a fiddler and a piper playing acoustic, to vast concert halls where rock bands had so much equipment that one hardly knew what they sounded like. So a live recording would be hard pushed to beat their recorded sound. But somehow The Kinnitty Sessions does just that, as this is truly the stuff that legendary albums are made of.
One of editorial staff spotted a review on another online ‘zine of a Cornish music CD that he had reviewed for us. The reviewer used the word ‘nice’ a lot, as if that would give the reader a good idea of what the CD was like. Bollocks, I say. A good Celtic album is far more than just nice — it grabs you by the throat and says listen up: the band wants you to hear this music now! A good band, live or recorded, demands that the listener pay attention. Now, I’ll admit that the gents with the flat Irish caps who prefer a pint of Guinness, a fag, and a band consisting of a fiddler and possibly a piper, aren’t going to be terribly keen on Lúnasa and its music — this is indeed modern Celtic music. (I use Celtic and Irish interchangeably. As one visitor to the Green Man Pub recently said, ‘I have no preference — I use them as synonyms, for the most part! I tend to use Irish more, but only to differentiate from Celtic-ish English stuff like Kate Rusby.’ The bleed between all forms of Celtic music these days renders the idea — for the most part — of distinctive Irish/Scottish/whatever music a debating point in our Pub late at night, while listening to the Neverending Session play ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’, but nothing more.) Lúnasa draws clearly off the seminal work of Donal Lunny and Moving Hearts — upbeat, fast-paced Celtic music em on jigs and reels.
Over a few pints of Guinness, I was thinking about how best to describe this CD. I was a bit puzzled, so I downed a few more pints, which didn’t help a bit. So, over an Irish coffee to clear me head, I discussed the matter with Reynard, the afternoon publican at the Pub here. He reminded me of the ‘Solstice’ chapbook by Jennifer Stevenson that we published. Now, being a bit thick, I didn’t get his drift, so he explained it. Lúnasa on The Kinnitty Sessions is what he thinks the band playing under the hill for the Summer Solstice in that tale must sound must have sounded like — so high-energy, fast-paced, and bleedin’ good that you really know that the musicians must be fey. He had heard the album being played in our Library this week and was impressed with how every track sounded superb. He particularly liked the set called ‘Maids in the Kitchen’ (‘Mrs. Sullivan’s Jig / The Kitchen Maids) and also the set that leads off the CD, ‘Stolen Purse’ (‘Stolen Purse’ / An Sioda Slide / Brendan McHahon’s Reel’) and ‘The Wounded Hussar’, a solo affair by Cilian on Uileann Pipes. This is indeed music for a Solstice in the same way that Frifot, whom I mentioned above, is music for a Solstice too!
Now, I’d like to return to me drinking, so go off and buy this CD. You can purchase it from the Compass Records Web site here, or from any other music shop with the good sense to stock it.
(Compass Records, 2004)