Fittingly, the Savannah Music Festival kicks off on St. Patricks Day, with two sets at the Savannah Theatre by one of the finest Irish music outfits in the world.
Like their main influence, the legendary 70s Irish group the Botha Band, Lunasa is an all-instrumental ensemble given to sudden tempo changes and an exhaustive repertoire of Celtic tunes.
Making their debut in 1997 with a self-titled CD that the Irish Voice called a true must-have disc, Lunasa has since become a big draw not only in their home country but in the U.K. and Europe, winning BBC Radios Folk Album of the Year in 2004 for their fifth CD, The Kinnity Sessions.
Despite the resignation of founding member and longtime guitarist Donogh Hennessy last year, Lunasa has carried on. Rather than replace the irreplaceable, the band decided to draft two new members to the band in Hennessys stead: Tim Edey on nylon-string guitar and Paul Meehan on steel-string. Both play on Lunasas brand-new CD Se (pronounced Shay, Gaelic for six).
Se is a dynamic collection of Irish tunes, played with passion and respect, and guaranteed to please both the connoisseur of true Celtic music as well as the more casual fan who may just want a new and fun soundtrack for their St. Pats party.
Beginning with the upbeat Cullybacky Hop, peaking with the haunting Black River, a tune by the great Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, and closing with the reel-heavy Boy in the Boat, the CD is the groups best-produced and well-rounded to date.
Lunasas current touring lineup is Trevor Hutchinson on bass, Sean Smyth on fiddle and whistles, Kevin Crawford on flutes, whistles and bodhran, Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and whistles, and Paul Meehan on guitar. Tim Edey plays on Se but is not currently going on the road with the band; Pat Fitzpatrick (piano), Karl Ronan (trombone) and Conor Brady (guitar) rounded out the recording sessions.
We spoke with fiddler Sean Smyth by cellphone as he walked down the streets of Dublin, Ireland, during a rare break in touring.
Connect Savannah: I was pleased you included a Kevin Burke tune on Se. His If the Cap Fits first turned me on to Irish music. He plays the fiddle like man possessed.
Sean Smyth: I always hear that story about Kevin inspiring people. He has been a fantastic introduction to Irish music for many people around the world, and hes been a huge influence on me. Not only his tune-playing and the way he plays, but as an originator of great music.
We saw Kevin in Glasgow recently at a festival we were playing. Its always fantastic to see him. Hes always touring and playing great music, and continues to do so as far as I know.
Connect Savannah: Does Lunasa purposely make a point in remaining faithful to the old tunes, or is that just what comes out when you guys play?
Sean Smyth: Its the essence of the tune that we try to convey. Theres a part of a tune that everybody plays, but each musician plays that tune from their place creatively. When we go to play a tune its not about this note after another note, in a technical way. We work on the music with a band attitude, not an individual point of view.
Connect Savannah: How much improvisation does Lunasa generally indulge in?
Sean Smyth: To a certain extent Irish music sticks rigidly to a form, in that it might have eight bars and its repeated, so that anyone thats dancing a jig or a reel will be able to do that. Its certainly not like jazz where you improvise on form. Instead we tend to do a lot with harmonics and melodies and that type of thing. There are some fantastic melodies in the Irish tradition.
Connect Savannah: Im far from the first to make this analogy, but Irish music does seem like the blues in that it adheres to a rigid format; however theres room for endless variation within that format.
Sean Smyth: Thats what I think a good art form involves. If its very limiting, its not great. Thats why Irish music has survived as long as it has. You can really be fulfilled in expressing yourself. I think theres plenty of scope within Irish tradition to improvise or otherwise add energy to a piece.
Connect Savannah: We went through a phase with a lot of self-consicous experimentation with Irish music. But it seems like everyones kind of going back to basics these days.
Sean Smyth: Well, its had a lot of different forms, hasnt it? You had that sort of Celtic rock spinoff thing, then it was the whole Riverdance phenomenon.
Id have to say at the moment Irish music is going back to pure roots. Musicians are listening more to whats actually within the music, having confidence in the melodies themselves. At the moment the focus is really on the beauty of Irish music.
Connect Savannah: As awful as Riverdance was, didnt it have the silver lining of bringing a new audience to Celtic music?
Sean Smyth: Everything helps, you know. Its been such a long tradition there and so many connections with so many different musical styles, especially in American folk music. Youve had some great bands through the years. Revivals through different generations, as well as the Riverdance phenomenon, all helped to bring the music and public perception of the music to where it is now. Without all those things, a band like ours wouldnt be able to get in the front door of a lot of places we play now.
Connect Savannah: Youre touring without one of your founders.
Sean Smyth: Donough unfortunately felt it was time for him to come off the road and stop touring. At that point we had to look elsewhere. Were very happy with our lineup now. Paul Meehan is on guitar, and was part of the recording on Se. Hes on the road with us now.
Connect Savannah: Whats the touring schedule like?
Sean Smyth: I havent actually been on the road since the middle of January. Im taking a little break at home right now, having just got back from a tour of Holland. Well soon be heading off to the states.
Connect Savannah: How does the continent take Irish music generally?
Sean Smyth: Response has been fantastic really, especially when you go to some of the Celtic regions of the continent, like Brittany in France and Galicia in the north of Spain. These are real places of Celtic music and are a source of a lot of inspiration.
And then its fantastic playing in places like Italy and other parts of Europe, like France or Holland. I love the summertime touring in Europe.
Perhaps one of the things thats worked for Lunasa is the fact that we have no singer. When it comes to those countries with very little English, it becomes important that you have no words that are a barrier.
Connect Savannah: You probably heard were way into the Irish thing here. Have any of you ever been to Savannah?
Sean Smyth: You have, what, the second or third-largest celebration in America, right? But no, weve never been. Were looking forward to it.
Connect Savannah: In the process of being booked into the Savannah Music Festival, have you been linked up with anyone in the local Irish community?
Sean Smyth: No, we havent had the opportunity to make anyones acquaintance yet. Im sure well meet quite a few good folk while were there.
Connect Savannah: I understand things are so good in Ireland these days that theres sort of a reverse migration. A lot of native Irish are saying to heck with America, were going back home.
Sean Smyth: The Irish economy has in the past ten years absolutely turned around. There is a segment of the population I wouldnt say a majority but a large segment that is doing very well. And of course, theres good and bad that has got to do with it as well. Like any growing economy, there are pluses and minuses. You see the real effects of greed, selfishness and bad planning.
But on another level, with the new arrivals from Europe and America, you get a rejuvenation thats very inspiring. Its certainly an exciting time if youre a part of it. I personally find the old, cosmopolitan-type integration of cultures to be quite exhilarating.
Lunasa opens the Savannah Music Festival on Friday, March 17, at the Savannah Theatre at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. For tix and info go to
Bio: A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series...A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series.more