Ireland's Lúnasa Venture Into Otherworld

Traditional Irish band finds commercial, critical success with latest album.

A spirit of adventure ripples through Otherworld, the latest album by Lúnasa, the Irish traditional quintet whose music is full of imaginative leaps and subtly shifting time signatures.

It's trad with a twist from a band that makes heady, challenging music. But ability alone has never been enough in Irish music, where many talented performers remain relatively obscure to all but the local pub denizens.

"The people who make it in Irish music are the people who take chances," said Kevin Crawford, a County Clare resident who plays flute, tin whistle and bodhran (a hand-held frame drum) in the band. "We've all taken serious chances to make Lúnasa work, and we've made no real big money over the last two years."

To be sure, the big-money track has welcomed few Irish traditional bands, apart from the Chieftains.

But Otherworld has become "the fastest-selling record in the history of our company," said Chris Teskey, chief operating officer of Green Linnet, the Connecticut label respected for the quality of its Celtic releases. The album has sold more than 20,000 copies in just six months, an exceptional figure for an indie label.

In addition, Otherworld — Lúnasa's second album overall and first for Green Linnet — was recently nominated for best Celtic/British Isles recording of the year by the Association for Independent Music, which in the past has honored such Irish-trad heavyweights as Altan, De Dannan and Solas.

Already a hit with critics and increasingly with the record-buying public, Lúnasa is made up of five master instrumentalists.

Playing melody alongside Crawford are Sean Smyth, an All-Ireland fiddle and tin-whistle champion from Mayo, and Cillian Vallely, an uilleann-pipes and low-whistle player from a prominent musical family in Armagh. Laying down rhythm are two former members of the Sharon Shannon Band: native Dublin guitarist Donogh Hennessy and Tyrone-born bassist Trevor Hutchinson (the latter also appeared on two Waterboys albums inspired by Irish traditional music).

The idea for Lúnasa germinated in November 1996, when Smyth was touring Scandinavia with Hennessy and Hutchinson. An invitation to tour Australia in January 1997 prompted the trio to expand their ranks, and Belfast-born John McSherry (uilleann pipes, low whistle) and Manchester-born Mike McGoldrick (flute, low whistle, uilleann pipes) joined shortly thereafter.

While in the Blue Mountains of southeast Australia, the band adopted the name Lúnasa (pronounced LOO-na-sa), referring to a pagan feast of the Irish god Lugh, patron of all arts. After returning from Australia, Lúnasa wrapped up its eponymous debut album and released it on their own label in November 1997. A mix of studio and live tracks, it was hailed as one of the year's best releases in Ireland.

In 1998, Crawford replaced McGoldrick, and in 1999, McSherry also decided to bow out. But both make key contributions to Otherworld, a studio album that captures the intensity of the band's live performances.

McSherry's scorching pipes are mere prologue to the barn-burning medley "Lafferty's/Crock of Gold/Lady Birr/Abbey Reel" (RealAudio excerpt). Adding subtlety to sizzle, the band transforms a basic jig into a gorgeous waltz in "Stolen Apples." And in "The Miller of Drohan" (RealAudio excerpt), Hutchinson plays three cello parts to lend a near-classical texture to a haunting slow reel.

It seems as if there's little Lúnasa can't do musically. Except sing. But they have an answer for that.

"We don't see ourselves as a band looking for a singer or needing one," Crawford said. "Our material is diverse enough so audiences won't miss vocals. No concert promoter has ever said to us, 'Hey, I liked what you did, but I can't book you again without a singer.' It's always been, 'Right, when can you come back?' "

Lúnasa return to the U.S. West Coast in May, and they perform at the Hollywood Bowl with Altan and Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster on July 30.