LÚNASA MAKE a welcome return to Galway and the Galway Sessions festival when the trad supergroup play Monroe's Live on Thursday June 18. A hectic and busy international touring schedule has afforded the band little opportunity to play in Ireland in recent times so this Galway gig is all the more to be welcomed.
As festival director Mick Crehan observes: “Lunasa fiddler Sean Smyth was one of the most popular figures in Galway's traditional music scene of the eighties and nineties. He was also one of the organisers of the inaugural Galway Sessions festival in 2001 and he and the band played a key role in attracting audiences to the festival in subsequent years. The last time they appeared at the festival was in 2007, it was a truly great night. It really has been far too long for such a great band that have such strong links to Galway to have not played here. We are really excited to have them back at this year’s festival.”
Alongside Sean, the Lunasa line-up is completed by Kevin Crawford (flutes, low whistles, tin whistles ), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass ), Ed Boyd (guitar ) and Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes, low whistles ).
Lúnasa have sold more than quarter of a million albums since forming in 1997. They boast an impressive back catalogue of seven highly acclaimed and award-winning studio albums. The band is internationally acknowledged as being the finest traditional Irish instrumental outfit of recent times. They are renowned for their stunning shows honed by superb musicianship and a constant touring cycle. They have performed more than 1,500 shows across 36 countries, including appearances at The Hollywood Bowl, the National Concert Hall Dublin, the Bath Fok Fwstival, and Sydney Opera House.
Their inventive arrangements and bass-driven grooves have steered Irish acoustic music into surprising new territory. Their recordings have been hailed as some of the best and most important world music albums anywhere, while their blend of intelligence, innovation, virtuosity, and passion has brought them to the forefront of Celtic music.
The individual group members are in increasing demand across the globe for touring and recording work – Trevor went out on a European tour with his old band mates, The Waterboys; Cillian collaborated with Bruce Springsteen on his 2014 album High Hopes; Kevin toured with Martin Hayes and John Doyle as The Teetotalers; Ed has toured with Flook and Cara Dillon; and Sean transforms back to being medical practitioner Dr Smyth between Lúnasa tours. Doctoring, in fact, prevented Sean from joining his bandmates on their recent series of gigs with the wonderful Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“I wasn’t actually on that tour but it went very very well,” he tells me over a Saturday chat. “We first toured with her about 10 years ago. She asked us to record her gigs and she made a great connection with the band, we weren’t expecting it at this point but it came around and we were very privileged to be asked.”
Sean explains that his medical day job holds as much fascination for him as his music: “They have always both been important, ever since I went to college. People ask me what is your favourite, I don’t have one; for me they complement each other and I just enjoy keeping my hand in with both. That’s the reason I didn’t do the Mary Chapin Carpenter tour. Up to last spring I used to do locum work between the tours but I have recently taken over a practice in County Clare so that has changed the dynamic. I am not able to get away as often as before so I am looking forward to these Irish gigs more than ever. It is a balancing act.”
The Galway connection
The good doctor is relishing the opportunity of taking out his fiddle and playing for a Galway audience again. “Our very first album came from a concert in Le Graal in Dominick Street back in the 1990s," he says. "We had an apartment upstairs from there and had recording equipment so we put on the gig and recorded it and that was the start of the Lunasa story. It’s always great to get back to Galway, we have lots of friends here and people who encouraged us over the years so this gig is basically a stone’s throw from where we started.
"We never thought our career would take off the way it did, we were just recording a few gigs to get an album out to go to Australia. Trevor had some recording equipment and put it in his Citroen and came to Galway and that was the start of it. It has been a long journey since and we have been all over the world and it is great to get back, even though the Citroen is long gone!”
Lúnasa’s last album saw them team up to thrilling effect with the RTE Concert Orchestra. “That was a great event for us,” Sean says. “Having our tunes and arrangements done with them was wonderful. We are now working on new material and looking to get a new album done. At the moment we are just looking forward to playing these gigs in Ireland because we don’t tour here that often.”
“We’ve stuck pretty much to our roots,” Sean says as he reflects on Lúnasa’s history. “Over the years there have been changes in personnel. When we started out we made the choice to play acoustic dance and Irish music but without a singer, we always wanted to play the tunes we grew up with and travel with them. That decision influenced the kind of music we recorded. We don’t just play Irish music, we do Breton music, Scottish music, and music from Cape Breton. We are all delighted to be supporting Mick Crehan and the Galway Sessions this year.”
Tickets for Lúnasa are available from www.monroes.ie for €15 and on the door for €17.50.