One of the things that sets Celtic music apart as a genre is that the people who love it really love it. Lúnasa, one of the foremost traditional Irish bands on the scene today, is living proof of that. With 10 albums and annual tours, the group carries forward the musical heritage of its homeland with ease and aplomb. Lúnasa frontman Kevin Crawford has some insight into why Celtic music has such a diehard fan base. “I believe it’s a very accessible genre of music and it’s quite infectious with its irresistible toe-tapping tunes,” he explains. “It’s also a very social form of music. Most people will have fallen in love with Irish music through the session.” (For the uninitiated, “sessions” are informal gatherings, usually in bars, where Irish music is performed.)
Named after the ancient Lughnasadh harvest festival and active as a band since 1997, Lúnasa’s current lineup consists of Seán Smyth (flutes, whistles), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes, whistles), Ed Boyd (guitar) and Crawford (flutes, whistles). They offer up their fair share of traditional tunes, updated for these more contemporary times. That balance between preservation and innovation is essential, from Crawford’s perspective. In fact, he says, “I’m 100 percent convinced that’s why Irish music has flourished at an enormous rate, whereas other types of folk music have focused too much on the preservation side of things, and I believe it is not good to fossilize a form of music — let it evolve, but be extremely mindful and respectful of what went before.”
Lúnasa’s mindfulness and respect are put into action at every step along the way, from song selection on down. To determine which traditional songs will work for the group, Crawford explains that they used to spend a lot of time in the musical trenches, “where we would trawl through old recordings, manuscripts, field recordings” and then just play around with whatever they thought might be a good fit for the project at hand. More recently, though, Crawford notes, “We’ve gotten much better at knowing, instinctively, what tends to work or not for the unit as a whole. There were always certain boxes that would require ticking — uptempo tunes, melancholic tunes to take the place of a singer, tunes from other Celtic countries, newly composed tunes from within the band. So I suppose we were sub-categorizing things subconsciously, which helped.”
When a band spends years together playing 250 shows in 365 days, an easeful intuition is bound to start unfolding. In recent years, Lúnasa trimmed down its travel schedule considerably to somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 annual dates, although 2015 will see the group split that difference in order to hit the 200 mark, covering ground across the U.K., Europe, Australia, Japan and, of course, the U.S., which is a primary market for them. Crawford observes that, even though the members have favorite, individual tour destinations, “I love America for touring and playing music, in general — wonderful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable audiences who have been incredibly loyal to the band over the 18 years we’ve been doing this.”
During those 18 years, Lúnasa has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the White House, among countless other venues. On Friday, Dec. 12, they will bring their Irish infectiousness to the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks to benefit Performances to Grow On. They will be joined by Karan Casey, another important and imitated voice in the traditional Irish realm.
The members of Lúnasa can also be found dipping their toes in other waters. Smyth does solo projects. Hutchinson used to play with the Waterboys. Vallely has collaborated with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Riverdance. Boyd performs with several bands, including the Scoville Units, and Crawford tours with the Teetotallers. He notes that striking the right balance “can be tricky, but you have to make it happen.” Still, Lúnasa is probably a better band because of the various outside projects, not despite them. “It feeds us in an artistic and creative sense, and provides a welcome change in both personal and musical direction, which helps massively when the band gets together again,” Crawford says. “We all have different things happening, but Lúnasa is our No. 1 priority. It’s our baby, our brainchild and our vision, so we’ll never turn our back on it.”
Lúnasa at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks on Friday, Dec. 12. Tickets are $29-$39 and available by calling 646-8907 or visiting www.ptgo.org.