Lúnasa @ The Castle Theatre, Wellingborough, September 24th 2013.
Lúnasa's first trip to this Midlands town, and mine to the impressive new building known as The Castle. From the outside it's more like a Morrisons than a mediaeval fortress, but inside is plush and purpose-built, with comfy seats and classy acoustics. The main stage is big, designed for full theatre companies rather than five-piece bands, and the focus on a small group of musicians in such a big space was curiously engaging. Lúasa did not disappoint, and indeed they managed to fill the room with sound, as well as covering a fair amount of the stage through Kevin Crawford's dramatic antics.
The personnel for this UK tour is not entirely standard. Taking full advantage of the inter-season transfer window, the band has put Seán Smyth on the bench and given fiddler Tóla Custy a place in the starting line-up. Seán is one of the few players who is equally at home as a team doctor, and I'm sure his medical skills have been useful on many tours, but this time he's stayed at home to practice. Actually, there's a lot of similarity between Seán and Tóla: both have the red hair and cheeky crumpled faces of disreputable fiddlers everywhere, and Tóla starts a tour looking pretty much the way Seán feels at the end of one. Tóla's fiddling on the slower numbers is simply beautiful, whether it's a solo Swedish air or a harmony for the ever-popular Last Pint. He doesn't always attack the reels with quite the same gusto as Smyth, but he made a superb job of Dr Gilbert's and The Malbay Shuffle in particular.
The other transfer this season is guitarist Ed Boyd, who formerly played with Flook for many years, and just as they are relaunching themselves he's been poached by Lúnasa on a long-term contract. Ed, from Somerset, joins Clareman Tóla and Clare Brummie Kevin Crawford, Ulstermen Cillian Vallely and Trevor Hutchinson, and is the first Englishman in the Lúnasa inner circle. The Wellingborough audience didn't seem to have a problem with that, and they loved his delicately rhythmic guitar, but they couldn't understand a word he said in his cider-blurred accent.
All five band members chatted with the punters to some extent, and the atmosphere was nicely intimate: so intimate, in fact, that Kevin felt able to give away many secrets about life on the road, diet and hygiene problems, and the dangers of stamping your feet at a concert in Frome. Mr Crawford's feet were barely still all night, wandering on and off stage, doing little jigs, running rings round the rest of the band. His mouth was almost as active, whether explaining the origins of a tune, cracking Brummie jokes, or glugging water to counter the effects of a hastily consumed pre-gig curry.
The music, of course, was outstanding. Classic Lúnasa numbers such as Morning Nightcap and Leckan Mor mingled with the more recent Raven's Rock and Ryestraw. A couple of themes from their recent album with the RTE Orchestra transported us to Brittany and Galicia, and indeed there were several Breton pieces scattered through the two hours. Cillian performed a virtuoso piping solo on The Yellow Bittern, with full use of his regulators. Trevor wired up his bass to a handy lightning source for low-frequency pyrotechnics on a couple of tracks, pushing the envelope of acoustic music. The Last Pint was reduced to only two tin whistles, as Tóla is strictly fiddle-only - you might say he's a one-trick ponytail - but the return of this Pierre Bensusan melody to the live set was welcome nonetheless. And that man Crawford hopped from flute to whistle, on traditional tunes or his own compositions, artfully avoiding the melody while he danced round the stage in a sublime state of musical ecstacy - or maybe it was just the curry.
Whatever the cause, Lúnasa were on fire in Wellingborough, and with luck they'll be back before too long. The Castle Theatre has a few folk acts in its calendar, from the Peatbog Faeries to Will Pound, so it could become a regular stop for touring Irish bands. And Kevin says they'll always keep a table for you at Funky Spice.
Photo Credits: Lúnasa: (1) by William Kennedy Piping Festival 2013, (2) by Walkin' Tom (Tønder Festival 2006).