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Compass Records 7 4377 2; 40 minutes; 2004
The legal machinations surrounding Lúnasa’s last release, Redwood, almost saw that album sinking without trace and taking this influential Irish band with it. Recorded before an invited audience at County Offaly’s Kinnitty Castle, The Kinnitty Sessions marks a deliberate attempt to recreate Lúnasa’s independence and regain control over their music and recorded output.
That being said, this, their fifth album, is a musical oddity – a live album with nary a trace of the trappings normally associated with such products – no applause, no shouts for favourite tunes, not even a cry of “Good man, Kevin”!
As ever, Lúnasa’s strengths lie in the subtle combination of melodic exuberance embraced by the three lead instruments (Seán Smyth’s fiddle, Kevin Crawford’s flute and whistles, and Cillian Vallely’s uilleann pipes and whistles) and their signature driving rhythm section (comprising of Donogh Hennessy’s guitar and Trevor Hutchinson’s double bass). They’re unusual too, as the opening Stolen Purse demonstrates, in eschewing the constant unison playing employed by most Irish traditional bands. Kevin, in particular, often utilises jazzy tonal shapes to reinforce the melody. Equally, too, guitar and bass sometimes combine to produce an effervescent, rolling beat, as on Island Paddy, of which many a rock band would be proud.
Maintaining variety and, consequently, listener interest is a problem faced by all traditional instrumental bands and Lúnasa succeed by permutating their line-up, allowing a wonderful solo The Wounded Hussar from Cillian’s pipes and, elsewhere, playing as a trio or quartet. Ultimately, however, it’s the joyful interplay on The Four Courts reel which lingers in the memory. But why does Donogh Hennessy look as though he’s about to deck the photographer on the album’s cover?
Compass Records 74422 2; 48 minutes; 2006
Sé is the Irish word for ‘six’ and reflects the numerical fact that this is indeed the Irish instrumental band’s sixth album. Nowadays Lúnasa are down to a foursome and resisted the temptation to replace their inimicable former guitarist Donogh Hennessy, whose sheer layers of sound in conjunction with extant member Trevor Hutchinson’s double bass provided such a formidable bedrock for the trio of melody leads (Seán Smyth fiddle, Kevin Crawford flute and Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes – all three providing whistles too). Instead Lúnasa opts here for three guitarists, singly or in twosomes – Paul Meehan, Tim Edey and Conor Brady – as well as adding Pat Fitzgerald on piano for a couple of tracks and the unlikely presence of trombonist Karl Ronan on a set of Spanish tunes, Midnight in Avilés.
However, while said inclusions go some way towards filling the Hennessy gap (though his compositional skills are sadly missed), there’s an overriding sense in Sé that Lúnasa need to consider reformulating their basic equation. Unlike perhaps their closest comparison, Flook, there’s an omnipresent feeling that Lúnasa are over-reliant on the re-excavation of old ground. True, there are plenty of tunes here (drawn from a variety of sources, either traditional or more recent compositions) which bear that distinct Lúnasa imprimatur, but the bulk lack memorability and their arrangements veer towards the predictable for anyone familiar with previous releases. Lúnasa’s musicianship can never be faulted, but perhaps it’s time for the band to reconsider its direction.
Compass Records 74475 2; 68 minutes; 2008
As its title suggests, this CD attempts to be a retrospective of Lúnasa’s development to date, but whether a band which has only released six albums needs such an artifice of attention is open to debate. Indeed said title is somewhat misleading since, rather than providing a coherent narrative, perhaps ordered chronologically or thematically, The Story So Far … leaps from album to album, thus providing a series of snapshots rather than a cogent whole.
The waters are muddied by the fact that some tracks have been remastered by the band’s bassist, Trevor Hutchinson, though others replicate their original album appearances, while Morning Nightcap, from The Merry Sisters of Fate, and Aibreann, from the debut album, have been completely re-recorded (though back in Nashville in 2006). It’s beyond the scope of this reviewer’s time to assess whether these newer versions genuinely supersede their predecessors in terms of quality.
However, this compilation does capture the essence of the band’s sound, and probably best so via The Floating Crowbar/Splendid Isolation. Yet, and it’s a very big ‘yet’, no matter how much the musicians sparkle, whether individually or as a collective, the overriding impression is of a band which lacks a soul. Perhaps the whole concept of Lúnasa was flawed in the first place and I’ll leave others to ponder that question.
These first two reviews by Geoff Wallis originally appeared in Songlines - www.songlines.co.uk – the third has not been published elsewhere.