Lúnasa - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Lunasa is an Irish traditional music group that has injected new blood and fire into the Celtic music scene since their formation in 1997. Their mix of strictly acoustic instrumentation with a strong rhythmic underpinning has won them fans the world over.
The seeds of what would become Lunasa were sown in 1996 when fiddler/whistle player Sean Smyth, a former All-Ireland fiddle champion, certified doctor, and former member of Coolfin, was invited to play a short tour in Scandinavia. He hooked up with friends upright bassist Trevor Hutchinson, a former member of acclaimed Celtic-flavored rock group The Waterboys and The Sharon Shannon Band, and guitarist Donogh Hennessy, also a former member of The Sharon Shannon Band, and the three came up with a driving sound that was similar to the celebrated 1970's era Irish traditional group The Bothy Band. Enthusiastic about their new sound, the trio returned to Ireland and recruited uilleann piper John McSherry and uilleann piper/flutist/whistle player Michael McGoldrick to join the fold. The group chose the name Lunasa in honor of an ancient Celtic harvest festival held in honor of the pagan Irish god Lugh, the ancient patron of the arts. The band gigged around Ireland and before embarking on a tour of Australia, gained another member in flutist and whistle player Kevin Crawford, who was also a member of the band Moving Cloud. Within just a few months, word had spread across Ireland about this new band, and the group were filling venues and playing to rapturous crowds, including a memorable stand at Matt Molloy's, a celebrated pub in the West of Ireland owned by former Bothy Band and current Chieftain Matt Molloy. Molloy himself checked out the young band and remarked “they remind me of a band I used to play with!” The band capitalized on their growing reputation by recording their first self-released album Lunasa (Lunasea/Compass) in 1997. Though the album was only released in Ireland, it was warmly received by both the public and critics, becoming a top seller and earning the distinction of being named one of the Irish Echo's albums of the year, and led to the band signing a three-album deal with the Celtic music based American label Green Linnet. The deal was the largest signing the label had ever offered a new band.
By the time the group was ready to record another album, McGoldrick had left the group, (though he would guest on their next release), and McSherry decided he didn't want to tour, so the group replaced the two with uilleann piper and whistle player Cillian Vallely, a member of a celebrated Irish musical family whose brother Niall plays in the group Nomos. The new version of the band recorded the album Otherworld (Green Linnet), released in 1999. The album received glowing reviews and strengthened the group's reputation as one of the Celtic music scene's hottest young bands. Otherworld went on to be Green Linnet's fastest selling release in the label's 25-year history. The group supported the release by touring around the world and even played to a sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2000. The line-up of Smyth, Crawford, Hutchinson, Vallely and Hennessy released their next album, The Merry Sisters Of Fate (Green Linnet) in 2001, and while the album expanded the band's aural pallet in small degrees by adding subtle shades of other instruments like lap steel guitar and clarinet, it kept to the band's core driving acoustic sound, emphasizing the pipes, guitar and string bass and the masterful way the band wrapped the instruments around traditional jigs and reels. The group again supported the release of the album by touring around the world, with stops in the U.K, U.S., France, Austria, Scandinavia, Australia, and Israel. In 2001, the band worked with acclaimed actress Holly Hunter on a theater production she was putting together titled “By The Bog Of Cats”, and also toured with such artists as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lunasa continued touring through into 2002, visiting the U.S. again, as well as Canada, Spain, Italy, France and Holland. While touring in the United States, the band took advantage of a two-week break and recorded their next album at Prairie Sun Studios in Northern California, then completed the tracks back home in Dublin. The completed album, called Redwood (Green Linnet), was released in June of 2003. With Redwood, the group tried hard to re-create for record what one of their live gigs was like, complete with their trademark break-neck speed interplay between the instruments and their peerless musicianship. After completing Redwood and fulfilling their contract with Green Linnet, the band signed with the Compass label.
After touring exhaustively to support their latest album, including a prize-winning slot at the Quebec City Summer Festival in 2003, the band returned to their native Ireland and decided to record their next release as a live album at Kinnitty Castle in County Offaly, in front of an audience of friends and followers of the band. The resulting album, The Kinnitty Sessions (Compass)(2004), showed a tour-hardened ensemble that played with an almost supernatural connection to each other. While many of the Celtic bands considered Lunasa's contemporaries eventually seem to mellow and tinge their repertoire with New Age touches, Lunasa seem to gain new fire and become tighter and more powerful with each release. The album was a success, especially in Ireland where it was voted the Best Traditional Album of 2005 by the readers of the Irish Music Magazine. After touring was completed to promote the album, guitarist Donogh Hennessy decided to leave the band and concentrate on his own projects. He was replaced on the bands next album Se (Compass)(2006), (meaning “six” in Irish Gaelic), by the talents of guitarists and multi-instrumentalists Paul Meehan and Time Edey. After sessions were completed, Meehan was asked to join the band full-time and toured with them to promote the album. The group kept up their full schedule of touring around the world, this time hitting such places as the Far East, Hawaii, North America and Europe, and eventually ended up in 2007 headlining the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland, a performance that was filmed and recorded by the BBC. After that, the band was back on the road, and played in Australia and made a swing back through North America, including a stop in Alaska. While on their tour in the United States, the band made a side trip to Compass Sound Studio in Nashville and re-recorded two old tracks from the band's repertoire, “Morning Nightcap” and “Aibreann”, with the new line-up of the band for inclusion on the group's first career overview, The Story So Far... (Compass), released in 2008 and compiled by the group's bassist, Trevor Hutchinson. The collection includes both photos from the band's history and extensive liner notes. Lunasa continue to tour throughout the world and show no signs of slowing down their extensive touring schedule.