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All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008
‘The Story So Far’ is a collection from the vast repertoire of the prolific band Lúnasa. Re-visited and re-mixed, it comes as a timely milestone, marking the whirlwind journey the band has travelled over the last eleven years recording and performing the most innovative, energetic and driving instrumental traditional music. This album, the band’s seventh, is a cross section of their output since those heady days in 1997 when their first live recording appeared. They have no intention of letting the pace slip. “I never thought I’d be here ten years later” laughs Seán Smyth as he talks about the first tour to Australia as ‘Lúnasa’ before they had decided on a name and before there was such a thing as a band photo!
The liner notes of ‘The Story So Far’ are extensive, a volume in itself, charting the band’s history in detail to date along with lots of photographs.
Things happened very quickly for Lúnasa and they were signed early to the American label Green Linnet which gave them access to the American market. They got stuck into playing there and received an immediate response from audiences.
“I remember before being signed with Green Linnet the excitement there was out there about the band. Playing in New York City and just seeing the queues down the street for Lúnasa. It was very exciting. Then we were approached and then signed and it took off from there and it didn’t stop. It snowballed and it was a very good experience for the band.”
Their love affair with America has never ended and each year Lúnasa tour there a number of times. They have expanded their horizons too and have made music in the farthest corners of the earth. “Lúnasa is as well known in Osaka and Melbourne, as in Madrid, Italy or Brittany” adds Seán. “It’s exciting and it’s great to get the response. We were in Japan last year and we went to a session afterwards and there you had about thirty musicians, all Japanese, playing Lúnasa sets of tunes. We meet people all over the world who play music because of picking up a Lúnasa record.”
The fans and followers of Lúnasa are the most important and indeed influential aspect of the bands life. Seán Smyth cites the interaction and communication with the audience at their live performances as the biggest connection he experiences.
The tunes and sets of tunes Lúnasa perform are all tried and tested on their audience before they are recorded or included in the set. “The audience are never wrong” says Seán. “If it works as a piece of music and if the band is working and it’s coming across with the energy and the focus, the audience will get it. They don’t have to be told. And we’ve always gone with pieces of music we’ve tried out in front of the audience. If they work, they work. If nobody understands it except yourself it’s no good. If the people get it, they get it and you work on that.”
It’s like running any good business really. It’s all about keeping the customer satisfied. In the case of music, the audience is the customer. Music is certainly a pleasure to be shared and the care and attention Lúnasa bring to their brand of music shines through in their careful arrangements and meticulous performances.
The Lúnasa sound has often been compared to The Bothy Band and that’s no accident. “When I was involved in putting the band together” explains Seán, “it was definitely a vision of mine to follow that route. I had learnt a lot of my music from pipers like Paddy Keenan and I had learnt a lot from Matt Molloy’s flute playing. It was very much flute and piping music I had grown up on, so it was fiddle, flute and pipes that I had dreamed of.”
Seán’s dream materialised when he was touring as ‘Seán Smyth and Friends’ in 1996 with Donagh Hennessey and Trevor Hutchinson. He had also been playing with John McSherry who with Mike McGoldrick was in the earliest line-up of the band.
Seán and Trevor are still at the core of the group, Kevin Crawford joined the band for its first tour, and Cillian Vallely joined them in 1999. Paul Meehan is the newest addition having joined when Donagh Hennessey left the band just three years ago.
The energy and rhythm of Lúnasa’s music is what sets the band apart. “Momentum was a huge thing in Lúnasa” says Seán. “It was definitely a driving thing. It just seemed to be like a whirlwind when we started and to me that was the high, being part of that.” Lúnasa’s music is totally instrumental and that’s another defining aspect. “It hadn’t to be explained to anyone in the band what Lúnasa was about” says Seán, “and what the band understand and is recognised for is this, we don’t have a singer in the band. We understand what the music is about and it was a common goal we all worked towards. That is the cohesiveness we have. We were all focussed on the project, where the music brought us and what we had to do to make a concert work. The more we figured that out, the better we got at it.”
‘The Story So Far’ features tracks from all six of the band’s albums featuring all the musicians’ contributions. Trevor did the work resurrecting the old material and putting it together in a shape that would work as an album. There’s an even spread from each of the albums, sixteen tracks in all, two of which are newly recorded versions (‘Morning Nightcap’ and ‘Aibreann’). “This is a tribute to the fans and the people who have been part of the Lúnasa team through the years” says Seán. “All the people who have been good to us, encouraging us. It’s a thank you in a way to everyone who introduced me to music and who introduced the band to the territories and worked so hard for the band. When people see Lúnasa, they have no idea about the hard work that goes on day by day behind the scenes to get the band on stage and have it perform the way it does.”
A well oiled machine, Lúnasa continue on their way, sure they’re only starting!