Free Lincoln Center Lunasa Concert: Lively, Expert Playing, and Laughs

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lunasa4How it’s New York: The concert took place at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium at 62nd and Broadway.
How it’s Irish: Lunasa is considered one of the finest groups in traditional Irish music today. Band members hail from Counties Clare, Mayo, Tyrone, and Armagh.

On Thursday March 7, 2013, Lunasa, perhaps the finest instrumental group of recent times in traditional Irish music played a free concert at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, as part of the Target Free Thursdays series. It was an evening of consummate and lively musicianship, and some good laughs as well.

As I made my way to the 7:30 show, the sign above Columbus Circle displayed a temperature of 34 degrees. It seemed clear that the temperature would drop and the rain reflecting the lights from the Broadway asphalt would soon be replaced by snow. But that did not deter the crowd from filling the atrium for first of two free Lunasa concerts that evening.

I’ve covered a few traditional Irish concerts for New York Irish Arts — including concerts by Altan and Clannad — but this is the first I have done since starting a class in Guitar Accompaniment for Traditional Irish Music taught by the great Peader O’Hici at the Irish Arts Center. I thought that perhaps my newfound knowledge about the structure of the music and the weeks I have spent practicing jig rhythms (with the hunger-inducing mnemonic of “rashers and sausages”) might give me some new insight into this show.

Lunasa — Kevin Crawford on flutes and whistles, Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and whistles, Seán Smyth on fiddles and whistles, Ed Boyd on guitar, and Trevor Hutchinson on upright bass — started off with a march called the “Battle of Ballyogan.” Kevin Crawford, acting as for MC for the band and providing much of the evening’s comedy, explained that he composed the piece in honor of an argument he had had with his wife.

On the heels of “Battle of Ballyogan” came a reel Lunasa learned from the playing of Tim O’Brien and a Highland bagpipe tune that kept the audience on its toes with a couple of false endings.lunasa5

The next two selections had unusual rhythms. “Dancing on Silver” was a poetically titled slip jig, in 9/8 time (which I now know has the rhythm of “coffee and rashers and sausages.”) “Road to Barga” featured a 7/8 time signature, which is so unexpected for Irish musicians that Crawford warned that he might remove one shoe so that he, like the rhythm, would feel a little off kilter.

They band slowed things down a bit with a lilting flute tune Crawford composed for the departed P.J. Crotty.  It was called, “Absent Friends.” Crawford and Vallely began the song on their flutes, backed by soft guitar and a few quiet bass notes. Sean Smyth joined in on the fiddle. In the middle of the tune, Ed Boyd played alone on guitar before the rest of the band rejoined him or a stirring conclusion. Vallely then piped a melody from County Cork, dedicated to the composer’s piano-playing sister, “The Ivory Lady.”

Crawford stated that after four days he felt very much at home in New York, especially in Queens where Valleley has an apartment. He said he had even joined a local gym to,

“y’know, feel a part of things.”

 

He offered the audience the 24 days of gym membership he would not be able to use, but there were no takers that I could see.

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Lunasa then treated us to a set of reels. The first reel was one the band had recorded with the Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE) National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Brophy. Crawford urged the audience to imagine that there was a full orchestra in the atrium, explaining that the actual RTE Orchestra was

“still in the car park because there was no room for them in here.”

The second reel, “Morning Nightcap,” with Crawford’s encouragement, had the crowd clapping along with the band.

Four Breton tunes – which had a darker, more medieval sound than the Irish and Scottish numbers – made up the next set of selections, before Lunasa returned to Irish compositions: one by Emer Mayock of Mayo, one from Doolin in North Clare, and one by Vallely that had Crawford and the audience clapping along again. It struck me as having a modified “rashers and sausages” rhythm.

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Crawford and Vallely left the stage while “mighty man from Mayo,”

Sean Smyth played a tune with a Scottish rhythm called a strathspey that he learned from its composer, Charlie Lennon, in Galway. Smyth followed that with “A Trip to Windsor,” an energetic Scottish number that evoked whooping and foot stomping from the crowd and “A Punch in the Dark,” written by Jerry O’Connor from Tipperary.

All the band members returned for some Sligo tunes they had recorded with the RTE Orchestra and a slow selection with a mood melancholy enough to suit its subject, “The Last Pint.” The song, featuring Crawford and Vallely on flute and Boyd on guitar, was written by Pierre Bensusan a French guitarist-composer whom Andy Irvine recommended visit Ireland. Unfortunately, Crawford quipped, Bensusan visited

“Ireland in March when all of the best musicians are in America, playing at Lincoln Center.”

Apparently, the pubs were still open, however.

Trevor Hutchinson started off the last set of tunes by using his bow to play a haunting deep drone on his bass. The fiddle and guitar joined in and then the whistle and the uilleann pipes lifted the song to a rousing crescendo that left the audience thrilled, yet perhaps considering sticking around for the 9:30 show …

As I had walked into Atrium, I had thought that my recent guitar playing might give me a different insight into the performances than I had had before. However, after watching Ed Boyd on guitar and the other accomplished musicians of Lunasa, I realized the biggest insight I had obtained was how much more I have to learn….

Happy Saint Patrick’s Month!

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