“Irish music: It’s not like mainstream music,” asserts Cillian Vallely, piper for Irish acoustic supergroup Lunasa. “You don’t get popular overnight. You also don’t fade out overnight.”
He’s not talking about pop acts like The Corrs and the Cranberries (both of which have faded), but long-standing favorites of a more traditional ilk. Groups like the Chieftains, whose members — instead of burning out quickly with screaming guitars and tight jeans — are growing old gracefully and on tour.
Members of Lunasa (the eldest of whom is nearly two decades younger than the Chieftains’ still-rocking founder) have spent 10 years together and are still on the road — a road that leads far beyond their native Ireland.
“The good part to us is when we get to go to an interesting place,” Vallely notes. “On this tour we’re going to parts of California and New Mexico and Colorado. There’s nice weather and the crowds are great — that keeps you going.”
Irish music vets seem to have a knack for acquiring not screaming groupies and private jets, but the ability to chose an agreeable tour route.
The piper explains, “There’s certain places that I’ll not mention that we go [where] it’s a little boring. Maybe the depths of winter. You kind of question yourself then, you know? [But] we did a two week tour of Hawaii in January — nobody was questioning anything then.”
Celt-rock is so done
Lunasa (whose tour brings them to the Lake Eden Arts Festival this weekend) came together at the end of 1996. But it wasn’t the first band experience for any of the group’s musicians. Sean Smyth is an all-Ireland champion on fiddle and whistle; flute, whistle and bodhran player Kevin Crawford is also a member of Irish instrumental group Moving Cloud; guitarist Paul Meehan played with the Karan Casey band; uilleann piper Vallely has performed with Whirligig and Paddy O’Brien’s Chulrua; and bassist Trevor Hutchinson was a member of the Waterboys from 1986 to 1991.
In ’96, Smyth toured Scandinavia with Hutchinson and Donogh Hennessy (who became Lunasa’s first guitarist) and the three of them hit it off well enough to form a band. Their first order of business? Record an album.
“It was a live album the lads did,” explains Vallely, who hadn’t joined the band at that time. The piper acknowledges that an immediate CD isn’t how most bands do things (usually there are several months of just getting to know each other and working up tunes in someone’s basement before even considering a gig — let alone packing venues around Ireland and Australia) but, as he puts it, “[Lunasa] is a little different than a lot of bands.”
From the outset, there’s the age range. While most groups tend to be made up of peers, Lunasa’s members span 20 years, with Hutchinson rounding out the top end.
“The good thing about Trevor,” the piper reveals, “is he’s been in a lot of bands over the years. We trust his judgment.”
Hutchinson also brings to the group a rock sensibility from his years with Mike Scott’s Waterboys. “I think beginning with the Waterboys he began to play the string bass, or maybe it was with Sharon Shannon [who was also in the Waterboys, and broke off to form her own band, bringing Hutchinson along],” Vallely surmises. “Before that he was just an electric bass player.”
“The rest of us would all have trad music backgrounds,” he continues, “but to different degrees we’ve all played different types of music.” The piper’s unofficial resume includes classical and jazz groups.
One thing Lunasa doesn’t add to its list of influences, however, is that American bar staple, Celtic rock. “There’s a genre of Celtic rock that’s popular outside of Ireland,” Vallely says carefully. “We see it a lot in Canada … bands with bagpipes, fiddle, rock-rhythm section. You see it in Scotland and places like Spain. That was kind of done in Ireland in the early ’80s and moved on from, really.”
Not your father’s Irish band
“There’s very much an economic boom in Ireland, and the music in Ireland is developing, and the people are expressing themselves,” Smyth mused in an interview with Roots World. “It’s very different from the music of the Irish people who moved away 20 years ago. Those who emigrated play music that’s very different from the way young kids in Ireland are playing music now, because [the emigrants] want to play the music the way their fathers played it.”
My own experience traveling in Ireland proved as much. Traditional acoustic music was performed in the tourist pubs, replete with whiskey toddies and peat fires. But in the clubs frequented by local kids, it was all American and European pop.
Smyth continued, “If you really want to hear traditional music, go to a sesuin [Celtic jam] in Chicago or New York. It’s scary. Unreal. It’s music I would have listened to as a kid in ceili [social] bands in my house. The tunes are all the same, and the tune that comes after a tune is the same tune that’s come after it for years. And [this sense of repetition] is important to them; it’s their connection to the culture of Ireland. Of course, our connection is different.”
Which may explain why Lunasa hasn’t garnered a huge following at Irish heritage events.
“The problem with those big Irish festivals is they’re more about a cultural day out. It’s about the vendors and the parade and the green beer and stuff,” Vallely says with a laugh. “What is ironic to us that we’ve done fairly well at the bluegrass festivals and the American music festivals … everybody there tends to be a music fan rather than looking for an ethnic day out.”
The piper adds, “We don’t play like a ceili band; we don’t play like we’re in a sesuin. [Our music] is highly arranged and worked out.”
In fact, on stage Lunasa has worked up a unique approach to this orchestrated, evolved traditional sound. First, there’s a complex relationship between the instrumentalists who play off one another, layering pipes, whistles, fiddle and guitar similar to a jazz arrangement. But if that sounds tediously cerebral, the band has removed the need for affected appreciation by prefacing each song or medley with a humorous introduction, background or anecdote (often at the expense of the band mates) by Crawford.
“It certainly wasn’t planned that way, but it may work that way,” Vallely concedes when asked if the talk originated to make up for the lack of vocals. “Nobody sat down and said ‘Kevin, do lots of talking because we’ve no singer,’ [but] Kevin would be hard to stop talking.”
No room on the bus for politics
Among the lads of Lunasa, there’s a healthy bit of ribbing, but — other than the usual malaise that arises from spending a decade on a tour bus together — no real animosity. Given that the band’s members come from both British-occupied Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it might seem surprising that these five guys can hack it out in a van together.
“It’s funny to me,” the piper says. “[Ireland] is one country, so I never think about it. The difference would be similar to the difference between somebody from New York and somebody from North Carolina.”
It’s perhaps a more powerful insight than Vallely — who now lives in New York City — might realize. The American Civil War caused a rift that affected generations, and even today the term “Yankee” isn’t generally considered a sweet nothing.
“You know, there are certain different personality traits, but that’ll be the height of it,” the musician continues about the band’s relationships. “There’s a bit of friendly slaggin’, but traditional music is played in every part of Ireland. Some places have different styles of music, but it’s as much East-West as North-South.”
Lunasa maintains a similarly balanced attitude toward criticism of their work — though it’s worth noting they’re more often critics’ darlings than music reviewers’ whipping boys.