Lunasa’s Crawford excited to be back; Irish band at Eighth Step Saturday

Lunasa (photo provided)

Lunasa (photo provided)

Christmas may be as Irish as St. Patrick’s Day.

Lunasa has sparkled for decades in annual spring-time pilgrimages here by Irish bands, a parade of lively dances and melancholy ballads long led by the venerable now-retired Chieftains. After playing Celtic Hall, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, The Egg and other venues, Lunasa returns Saturday to the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater (422 State St., Schenectady) — just two days into their first tour in two years.

“I’m getting ready for the tour,” said Lunasa flute and whistle player Kevin Crawford from his Brooklyn apartment Tuesday. Tones testifying to his County Clare ancestry, he said he’s “trying to remember how this all works.”

“This all” has worked wonderfully well for Lunasa, playing traditional Irish music without modernizing it, but instead finding in old songs new ways to showcase members’ talents.

For Crawford, whose early years in Birmingham, England, were spiced by summer visits to County Clare, learning to play was a return to home and heritage.

“A lot of Irish musicians would have music passed down from their parents,” said Crawford, “but I didn’t have that.” Musical uncles and other amateur players visited, but neighbors opened his ears and fired his ambitions. “I was fortunate enough to hear musicians that were neighbors of my parents” — Junior Creegan and Josie Hayes.

“I remember hearing the combination of a fiddle and a flute playing, and I just couldn’t get enough of it,” said Crawford. “I literally kept asking my mom, ‘Can you bring me down to Junior Creegan’s house? I want to hear more music.’”

He recalled Creegan and Hayes as “proper bona fide musicians that were really good and I got to hear them because they lived just a couple of houses down from my parents.” Crawford said, “That’s what set me on the path.”

That path zigzagged between County Clare, hearing neighborhood mentors, and Birmingham with his singing father, but detoured to Australia before Lunasa even knew they were a band.

Back in Birmingham, Crawford listened to his parents’ records and taught himself to play penny whistle, with tune tips from his father. “He would come home from work after a day on the construction sites of England, and he would sing some of the Irish songs,” Crawford said.

“He would ask me then to play the tune associated with that song, so I would tease out the notes,” said Crawford. “He would say, ‘No, that’s not right,’ but eventually I would have these melodies of the songs I could play.” First came ballads. “From there I would progress to the more difficult dance tunes, the kind of faster tunes.”

He said, “I was happy just to be making noise with this thing; It was never like I needed to get better.” Then, however, “Everyday I wanted to do it and by consequence I did get better.”

Crawford played with bands in England before moving back to his parents’ hometown, Milltown Malbay, County Clare.

“I left England when I was 18, and then I left Ireland when I was 45,” said Crawford. “Even when I was in England, my heart was in Ireland. Even though I’m in America now, I still feel I live in Ireland.”

While the future members of Lunasa knew each other in the Irish traditional music scene, they’d never played together until bassist Trevor Hutchinson toured Australia in Sharon Shannon’s band. The promoter then invited Hutchinson, who’d also played with the Waterboys, to form a band and return. Hutchinson, said Crawford, “called (fiddler) Sean Smyth, and Sean Smyth called me, and the next thing we knew, we were going to Australia.”

They toured Australia for six weeks in 1995 and had a fine time, but thought it was done. “We had no aspirations to be a band, full time on the road or anything,” said Crawford. “So we came back and we all went back to our respective jobs and gigs.”

Nearly a year later, the Australian promoter called again, offering Hutchinson another tour. Newly married, working in advertising at a radio station, Crawford said, “No, I can’t go.”

His wife encouraged him, his boss said he’d hold his job for him, so Crawford went. “At the end of that three month tour, it was so successful and everybody was really encouraging” that they all quit their day jobs and previous gigs to become Lunasa.

“I left my advertising job and Sean Smyth, the fiddle player, he gave up more than anybody else in that he was a fully qualified doctor and he stepped away from the doctoring,” said Crawford. “We gave it a shot and here we still are.”

The Irish Times calls Lunasa “the hottest Irish acoustic band on the planet.”

In these pages, I’ve praised them as “an Irish traditional band of towering eminence and renown,” noting “Their lineup changes from time to time, but without denting their reputation or their talents.” Before a 2017 show here, I called them “A traditional Irish band with nine albums of their own since 1998 and distinguished collaborations in all directions … Their playing and harmonies are tight as a bodhran (Irish hand-drum) head.”

When they teamed up with singer Natalie Merchant here in 2018, I wrote, “They’re a virtuoso ensemble with tightly-knit grooves and reach-for-the-stars solos.”

Also in 2018, they released “Cas,” a dazzling studio album.

Looking back, becoming Lunasa in 1996 when their self-named debut album hit “was just completely a surprise, and I like that it was,” Crawford explained. There was none of this ‘We’re gonna be a band, we’re going to rule the world.’ No, we were having a good time, we were enjoying music, we were really enjoying each other’s company; we forged friendships.”

They also framed a new approach to venerable tunes and time-tested techniques.

“We play traditional Irish music primarily, even though we’re regarded as a contemporary kind of a band within the umbrella of traditional Irish music,” said Crawford. “So we’re always aware of showing respect to the tradition.” He said, “Because we have been immersed in the tradition, we know when you stretch it too much…it’s not authentic any more.” This judgment, he said, “only comes from having been part of a community and a tradition all of your life.”

Crawford said when bands modernize too much, “It’s almost like they superimpose what’s cool now onto the music.”

So instead of looking outside, Lunasa goes inside.

“We tend to work very hard at trying to explore what exactly is in the tunes themselves,” said Crawford. “Then if you find something in there that you can kind of expand on — be it either a kind of an inner groove within that melody or…it might be something harmonically that comes off of that tune — then all of a sudden, you’re expanding and you’re exploring and you’re creating,” he said. ”But you’re doing something that comes from the actual tune, rather than just throwing something on top of it because it kind of fits.”

Lunasa’s structure naturally structures their arrangements. “There are three melody players (himself, fiddle and uiliean pipes) and there’s two accompanists (acoustic bass and guitar) so there has to be something in it for everybody,” Crawford said. “Traditional Irish music for so long was melody based, there was very little regard for what the backline doing. So for us, there has to be something in it for each of the members.”

Emphasizing balance between melody and rhythm echoes 1960s Celtic-inspired folk-rock bands Planxty, Steeleye Span and Pentangle, but also nurtured new ambitions.

“That’s where we started writing our own material,” said Crawford. “We probably have a balance of 60 or 70 percent traditional old Irish melodies, 10 to 15 percent of Celtic melodies from other regions,” he explained, specifying “Scottish tunes, French-Canadian tunes, Galician tunes, Breton tunes.” He said, “And then the rest, we rely on our self-composed pieces.”

Pride clear in his voice, he said, “We’ve gotten really better, more skilled I should say, at writing tunes that have everything, something for the melody, something for the accompanists and something harmonically as well.”

That structural approach and pan-Celtic curiosity also shape the seasonal show they’ll play Saturday at the Eighth Step.

“With the Christmas tour, we were very worried that it could be a bit cheesy, you know,” said Crawford, noting the danger of excess sentiment. “So we had to find some stuff that hadn’t already been completely done forever.” He said they found “melodies that hadn’t really been explored before that were holiday related or winter solstice-y related.”

“We like to include tunes from other Celtic countries, and that really is where we were able to bring something different to our Christmas show…because we were now able to tap into holiday Christmas melodies from Galicia, from Brittany, and they’re phenomenal.”

Eager to hit the road, Crawford lamented the premature end of their 2020 tour.

“We played the North Texas Irish festival the weekend before everything shut down,” he said. “Everything shut down on the 12th of March, and on the 11th we were playing in Massachusetts.” He doesn’t recall exactly where, but poignantly remembers the feeling of playing onstage, and how he has missed that.

“The word was out that the virus was there and maybe it’s going to effect us,” said Crawford. The Irish bands at the festival all thought “Something is not feeling right here.” Then he reflected, “We didn’t think, though, that the whole flipping country was going to be locked down and then the whole world was locked down.”

Lunasa had high-profile shows booked in New York City and North Carolina, but they soon learned, as Crawford said, “This tour is definitely dead in the water.”

The three Irish resident members scrambled onto flights home. The American-based members haven’t seen them since, except online.

“We did a few, two or three, online concerts,” Crawford said. “But they were just to try and keep some kind of awareness out there that the band was still going to be there when things open up.”

However, “We didn’t enjoy them; we did them, we did a lot of online stuff individually,” Crawford said. “Teaching became my life during the pandemic, and I love it.”

“But I’m so excited to get back out and do some shows.”

Selected Christmas-season shows; Irish or Non:

Thursday, Dec. 2: Eileen Ivers “A Joyful Christmas” at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. 200 Hurd Rd., Bethel Woods. 8 p.m. She’s a Bronx-born fiddler, protege of Martin Mulvihill, and she guest-starred in the late, great Paddy Moloney’s all-star revue the Green Fields of America. $91-$51. 845-583-2000

Tuesday, Dec. 7: Cherish the Ladies. Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. 30 Second St., Troy. 7:30 p.m. $34.50-$29.50. Flute and whistle player and singer Joanie Madden leads this mostly-women ensemble of players, singers and dancers. 518-273-0038

Friday, Dec. 17: It’s a Jazzy Christmas. Proctors GE Theatre. 432 State St., Schenectady. This all-star crew of area jazz heroes is David Gleason, piano; Michael Lawrence, bass; Brian Patneaude, tenor saxophone; Ben O’Shea, trombone, plus others, playing Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” Christmas music and more. Likely sold out

Saturday, Dec. 18: The McKrells Holiday Concert at The Egg Center for the Performing Arts. Empire State Plaza, Albany. 8 p.m. $28.

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 4
Where: Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theatre
Tickets: $30 advance, $35 on Saturday. $60 front and center with pre-show meet-and-greet onstage. 518-434-1703
Note: In addition to members Trevor Hutchinson, bass; Ed Boyd, guitar; Sean Smyth, fiddle; Kevin Crawford, flute and whistles; and Cillian Vallely, uilleann pipes and whistles, this “Christmas from Ireland” concert also feature

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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