Lúnasa, generally considered the top Irish music band on the planet today, is back on the road, on an extensive tour of Canada and the Western U.S., including Cranbrook, on Thursday, Feb. 16. It’s their longest tour, in fact, since 2016, the last time they played the Key City Theatre.
Kevin Crawford (flute, whistles), Colin Farrell (fiddle), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass) and Ed Boyd (guitar), play traditional and original Irish music with new rhythmic complexities and harmonic sophistication. As one of Ireland’s famous musical exports, the band was constantly touring, until the pandemic.
Kevin Crawford took the time to talk to the Townsman from New York State, about coming back out on tour for that length, meeting old friends on the road, and where their music is coming from.
“It’s definitely different,” Crawford said, of the post-pandemic tour. “We’ve done some touring, but nothing as extensive as what we’re about to embark upon. We went out for three weeks last March, then we did two and half weeks at Christmas, and a bunch of festivals over the summer. But this is seven weeks!
“The last time we did a seven week straight tour was probably around 2016. I’m really excited, but I’m also a little bit petrified.”
Covid still looms large, and adds an extra edge to tour possibilities.
“On a seven week tour, you’re hoping that everything goes your way, not just in terms of staying on top of your game and staying fit and everything, but if one person comes down with Covid in the middle of a tour, that’s 10 days out for someone, and you have to get a replacement.
“But it’s exciting to be going to all these places again. I’m hungry for Canada, for Montana, for California … I never thought we’d get to do that amount of road again. It’s so great.”
The Irish music scene is very strong — across the country, and across the world. It’s also a small community, for a global one.
“We’ve got so many friends to catch up with,” Crawford said. “People you thought were just acquaintances when you don’t get to see them every year, you realize there were deep friendships, and I miss not seeing those people.”
Every so often in history, it seems, a relatively small population in a particular corner of the world comes up with an artistic movement that proves to be a global influence. Think the playwrights of 16th century London, the Blues of Chicago in the 1950s, Jazz in New Orleans in the ’20s, or painters in Florence during the Renaissance.
So it could be said of Irish traditional music, coming out of small collectives in the ’60s, evolving, and becoming popular around the world. It experienced a renaissance in the ’60s and ’70s in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and a further immense surge in global popularity in the 1990s.
In the 1960s, the band The Chieftains created an arena and a platform for Irish music around the world.
“The Chieftains took the world by storm,” Crawford said. “They definitely started the trend, doing things with traditional music that hadn’t been done before in terms of putting it into a group setting and an arranged kind of format. What they were doing with tunes, mixing tunes, putting jigs with slides and polkas and reels, and mixing it up, and not having it as this old school way of playing. They made it more of a listening thing, rather than just there for dancing. They started that.”
But in the 1970s, Irish bands took traditional music to a new level again — in particular famous bands like Planxty, the Bothy Band, and De Dannan — with high intensity arrangements of tunes and songs, and virtuoso playing. It changed the Irish music scene and brought the music new popularity and interest.
“It was so amazing what they ended up doing, bringing in these other instruments — guitar, bouzouki, new ways of harmonizing, and counterpoint,” Crawford said. “When the Bothy Band and Planxty started to doing those amazing arrangements combined with virtuoso musicianship, that set a bar that everybody has been trying to live up since. I don’t think it’s been surpassed.”
There is no doubt that Lúnasa (the name is after an ancient Celtic harvest festival) is an inheritor of that movement.
“I know by our fan base that we have had a positive impact on keeping the scene going and putting our own slant on it,” Crawford said. “We’re just running with the ball, really. They gave us permission to do that. That’s what you need in music, to say ‘look, it’s okay to try things.’
“Some traditions don’t look so positively or kindly on people messing with it. Irish music is strong enough to be taken in different directions, as long as there’s a respect and an understanding of what the fundamentals are, and the heart and soul of it. You can definitely try and put your own stamp on it.”
Since 1998, Lúnasa has put out eight albums of traditional tunes and original compositions. Their most recent was CAS, in 2018, which, because of the pandemic, the band sees as a relatively new album.
“We’ll be playing a lot from the album that came out in 2018, but they’ll be a bunch of new things again that we’ll be trying to sneak in during the gig to road test them,” Crawford said.
Lúnasa also has plans to record a new album at the end of the year.
“We’re actually going to Japan to cut it,” Crawford said. “Because this is such a long tour, it’s a perfect opportunity to try out new material. You can share files with each other, and learn tunes, and share ideas, but you have to road test them, and play them in front of an audience, and get the energy behind them and see if they work in real life.”
Lúnasa plays the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Thursday, Feb. 16.