The green season is past us now when all the world’s a Gael and turning out for the seasonal frolics. Many are oblivious to the fact that the world of Irish traditional music is a high powered and entertaining art form that doesn’t switch off as the calendar changes.
Even The New York Times noted the evergreen quality of the Irish trad session scene in New York City in its St. Patrick’s Eve edition. Fueling and inspiring traditional Irish music still is a combination of great performance bands that keep the music innovative on the technical and entertainment scales with committed artists who populate their rosters and also show their mettle as individual performers.
Last week I caught a Monday night show in Manhattan by Lunasa, the all-instrumental band from Ireland which has maintained a prominent place in the vanguard of professional touring bands since starting up in late 1996.
Founding members Sean Smith, one of Ireland’s finest fiddlers, and bass player extraordinaire Trevor Hutchinson remain, and Kevin Crawford (flute) who joined them in 1997 followed by uilleann piper Cillian Vallely in 1999. They are a formidable quintet who amazingly keep trad music sharply balanced on the cutting edge.
Watching them play at the very classy Highline Ballroom – one of their favorite and more successful haunts in the Big Apple – was like watching a fabulous high-wire act or Cirque du Soleil, full of creativity, daring do, balance, teamwork and stagecraft.
Their music is always powerful and sublime in equal measures, a testament to the skills of the individuals in the band whose sum always exceeds the parts.
With the thoughtful interplay between the melody makers in Crawford, Smith and Vallely and the
rhythm section of Hutchinson and Ed Boyd more than holding up the guitar chores on the current tour, it is easy to see why they remain on top as one of the more popular tour acts around the world who have produced eight CDs.
This March tour features 17 dates as it closes out this week, including a performance at the historic Blairtown Theater in New Jersey (www.thbt.com) on Wednesday, March 21 at 8 p.m.
Surviving so long without a singer again says volumes about the musicality of the group, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say they don’t have a vocalist.
Flute and whistle player Kevin Crawford saves just enough of the mighty wind he uses to power those instruments, to keep the audience in stitches with his comical repartee usually at the expense of his bandmates and also himself.
He has no compare when it comes to slagging the fellows on stage or relating the commonplace little episodes on tour, or the derivation of tunes all cleverly delivered in the patter of his charming Clare accent keenly honed over the years since he moved back to Ireland in 1989 from his native Birmingham.
As my own Clare-born mother was fond of saying, “He didn’t steal it” as his parents hailed from Miltown Malbay. Crawford has been a popular and central figure in the music scene in the Banner County since his early days at the fledgling ClareFM radio station where traditional music is core to the programming.
He was a key member of the band Moving Cloud based in Clare, and that band is where I and many others first discovered him.
If his humor brings a smile to one and all, it is his music and command of the form and the important roots from which it stems that pulls at the heartstrings.
And he has just produced another sterling solo CD, Carrying the Tune, on Ballyo Records that will want to find a place on the shelves of every follower of the pure drop.
Like his earlier recordings D’Flute and In Good Company, Crawford knows good tunes and he relishes sourcing them and literally breathing new life into them with his own tasteful interpretation.
Thirty-seven tunes carefully distributed over 14 tracks give us a fair idea of the thoughtful and comprehensive way Crawford absorbs the music all around him, from seminal sources deep in the well of tradition, or new compositions or settings that he finds a way to complement the source always, gentleman that he is.
He even devoted a track to three tunes he composed for his mother-in-law, sister-in-law and darling wife Tracy (“Delia the Diamond,” “Princess Polly” and “The Girl for Me”) with great affection that comes through the music and the liner notes.
The humor was on him when he composed two more tunes, “Ray’s Revenge” about his snooker opponent (he is zealous fan of the sport) and “The Hula Hoop” about a little garden party where the three aforementioned family members found the combination of high-spirited tunes and drink sent them for a loop.
While old codgers like me have to pull out the magnifying glass to read the liner notes, they tell the tale of what makes Crawford tick as a musician and a tradition bearer of the highest order.
Crawford always finds himself in the best musical company, and on this album he has close friends Mick Conneely, Brian Morrissey and John Doyle who along with Martin Hayes form a new trio with Crawford called the Teetotallers who will be out in the U.S. in late May.
Kevin Crawford at the Killarney School of Music: