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Trad Beat Lúnasa Luminous in Towne Crier Cafe

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

LÚNASA, at the Towne Crier Café, Pawling, N.Y. Jan. 24.

During the penultimate weekend of January, New Yorkers finally got their first live taste of one of Ireland’s hottest bands, Lúnasa, and the quintet exceeded all expectations. Included among their concert stops was the Towne Crier Café, where they put on a galvanizing performance.

Print comparisons to the Bothy Band — a perilously lofty standard to measure up to for any group today — are apt in at least two respects for Lúnasa: their talent is extremely high across the board, and the rhythm section of Tyrone-born Trevor Hutchinson on double bass and Dublin-born Donogh Hennessey on acoustic guitar provides a strong, driving beat not unlike what Dónal Lunny and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill gave the Bothy Band.

Within that superb rhythm setting by Hutchinson and Hennessey are Birmingham-born Kevin Crawford on flute, tin whistle, and bodhrán, Mayo-born Seán Smyth on fiddle and tin whistle, and Dublin’s Ivan Goff guesting on uilleann pipes and flute.

The arrangements of Lúnasa are just breathtaking, full of imaginative leaps, subtly shifting time signatures executed with precision and grace, and fiery, faultless playing. Nowhere was that more powerfully in evidence than on "Jizaique," an air by Breton guitarist Gilles Le Bigot, followed by "Baby Rory’s" slip jig, written by former Lúnasa member Mick McGoldrick, and then the traditional "Dub Reel." The changes in tempo and tunes, and the sheer dynamics of this medley, were stunning.

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"Terry ‘Cuz’ Teahan’s/Alice’s Reel," a West Clare traditional fling followed by a Frankie Gavin reel, began in a measured tempo set by Crawford and Goff on flutes and Smyth on fiddle, then kicked into a faster pace catalyzed especially by Hennessey on guitar. "Dr. Gilbert’s/The Devils of Dublin/Black Pat’s," a medley of reels ending with a Tommy Peoples’ tune, started with Smyth on fiddle and Hutchinson on upright bass, then segued into the second reel led by Crawford on flute, and concluded with the entire band joining in on the last reel.

It was a tour de force without the technique-for-its-own-sake approach so many virtuosos fall prey to.

The duet on F whistles by Crawford and Smyth elevated a beautiful tune by Algerian-born guitarist Pierre Bensusan, "The Last Pint," into something utterly magical, while the combination of Crawford’s bodhrán and Goff’s uilleann pipes on "Jenny Picking Cockles/Lafferty’s/Trip to Herve’s" made an equally strong impression.

Tunes relatively new to Lúnasa’s repertoire included "Séamus O’Shanahan’s," titled after the tongue-in-cheek alter ego of Beginish fiddler Paul O’Shaughnessy, who wrote the tune, and "The Ballymun Regatta," composed by Dónal Lunny and Bill Whelan for the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest. On the first tune, the walking bass line laid down by Hutchinson was especially effective with Crawford’s tin whistle.

Accompanied by Hutchinson and Hennessey, Seán Smyth turned in a marvelous solo on fiddle, and one of the night’s last band medleys, Hammie Hamilton’s "Kerfuntan" jig along with the traditional jig "Eddie Kelly’s" and the slip jig "Give Us a Drink of Water," brought the crowd to their feet.

This exultant, exceptional concert by Lúnasa whetted one’s appetite for both their second studio recording, now nearly finished, and their quick return stateside for a much longer — and geographically wider — tour. They are certainly among the musical elite in Ireland today, a band whose diverse skills and personalities mesh in a way few other groups come close to achieving.

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