By Earle Hitchner
Back in 1997, double bassist Trevor Hutchinson and guitarist Donogh Hennessey, both of whom anchored the rhythm section of the Sharon Shannon Band, linked up with Mayo-born fiddle and whistle player Seán Smyth, Manchester-born flute and low whistle player Michael McGoldrick, and Belfast uilleann pipes and low whistle player John McSherry for a tour of Australia and some select gigs in Ireland. The quintet hit it off so well that they decided to record together later that year.
The result was "Lúnasa," the Irish Echo’s No. 6 traditional album for 1997. It comprised 11 tracks, four of which were taken from live concerts recorded at Cork’s The Lobby, Dublin’s Harcourt Hotel, Galway’s Le Graal, and Matt Molloy’s Pub in Westport, Co. Mayo. One of the most exciting and inventive releases to come out in recent years, "Lúnasa" expertly stretched the tradition without snapping it.
The tunes were tasty and refreshingly arranged, including Grey Larsen’s "Thunderhead," "Snow on the Island," a Breton air learned from Brittany’s Barzaz; "Frailock," a klezmer tune, and Phil Cunningham’s "Hogties." It was a can’t-miss combination featuring the lead playing of McGoldrick (of the bands Toss the Feathers and Flook, he cut his "Morning Rory" solo album in 1996, and it finished No. 11 in the Echo top trad album list for that year), Smyth (his 1993 solo album "The Blue Fiddle" finished in the top 10 for that year), and McSherry (of Dónal Lunny’s Coolfin, the Northern Irish group Tamalin, and a frequent partner of Niamh Parsons on record).
McGoldrick is now playing full time with Capercaillie, and McSherry is often called away to tour with Lunny’s Coolfin, so the upcoming U.S. debut of the band Lúnasa will feature Smyth, Hutchinson, Hennessy, new member Kevin Crawford on flute, tin whistle, and bodhrán, and guest uilleann piper Ivan Goff, from Dublin, who acts as a "floater" whenever McSherry or, on rarer occasion, McGoldrick can’t sit in.
But do not consider this stateside lineup makeshift, for all five members have played together frequently in Ireland. "Ivan is a great musician — just wait till you hear him," Crawford said from his home in Ennis, Co. Clare. He now splits time between Lúnasa and another standout band, Moving Cloud. "The tour we’re doing of the States is just promotional and is confined to the East Coast. We’ve almost finished our second album, and we should have an announcement about the label soon." Their first album was intentionally self-issued; the second, however, is almost certain to be a major-label release.
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Lúnasa will be giving only four concerts in America before jetting back to Ireland again. Here are the dates, venues, and cities:
€ Jan. 22, Wilde Hall, University of Hartford, West Hartford, Conn. ( 274-8587);
€ Jan. 23, Fez Under Time Café, 380 Lafayette St., NYC ( 533-2680);
€ Jan. 24, 8 p.m., the Towne Crier Café, 62 Rte. 22, Pawling, N.Y. ( 855-1300);
€ Jan. 25, The Burren, Somerville, Mass. ( 776-6896).
Arguably the hottest group in Ireland right now, the quintet will also be making an appearance on Kathleen Biggins’s "A Thousand Welcomes" show, WFUV-FM, 90.7, in the Bronx, N.Y., on Saturday, Jan. 23, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Perhaps the best endorsement of Lúnasa’s ability came from Bothy Band alumnus and current Chieftains flutist Matt Molloy: "They remind me of a band I used to play with."