Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA
(23 February 2000)

It wasn't a good sign that I arrived at the Tin Angel exhausted.

Tired from a busy week with little sleep and a stubborn winter cold, I sat in the narrow room with a cold pint and silently cursed myself for driving two hours for a show when I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep my eyes open 'til the intermission, much less for the drive home afterwards. Full credit to Lunasa -- I left the show wide awake and invigorated.

Hard on the heels of a successful 1999 album release -- Otherworld from Green Linnet -- the band was on a grueling tour of the States. Any fatigue they might have felt from a heavy performance schedule was well-concealed, however; the Irish quintet played the night away with fiery enthusiasm.

The Tin Angel, at 20 S. Second St., Philadelphia, is not the best venue for music. The second-story room is far too narrow for comfortably seating more than a handful of people close to the band. It's small -- I doubt they could cram more than 200 people in there, even packed to standing-room-only capacity as they were that night -- and I felt sorry for the pub's only waitress as she wove her way through the crowd keeping pint glasses and coffee mugs filled. To make matters worse, the Guinness tap was dry.

Fortunately, the band -- compacted as they were on a wee stage -- made up for any shortcomings of the site.

Lunasa is Kevin Crawford (flute, whistles and bodhran), Sean Smyth (fiddle and whistles), Donogh Hennessy (guitars) and Trevor Hutchinson (double bass). Joining them for this tour was Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and the low whistle. They aren't newcomers -- all have musical backgrounds preceding this project -- but they mesh together like they've been playing together for years. They're also extremely well-balanced for a five-piece. Although focus naturally shifted to one or another member of the band during key moments -- usually Crawford, Smyth or Vallely -- they managed to sustain incredible equalibrium among the instruments. (Some credit for this must obviously go to their traveling sound man, Ed Kenehan.)

They combine a very traditional arrangement -- fiddle, flute and uilleann pipes -- with Hutchinson's stylish electric double bass and Hennessy's folk-rock touch on rhythm guitar to add a lot to the music's dance factor. It was rare during this performance to see anyone in the audience sitting completely still, and vigorous chair-bopping was common.

Crawford is the band's dynamic flute and whistle player, and he commands attention between sets because he is, for the most part, the only member of Lunasa who ever speaks. But he more than made up for the others' silence, maintaining a running commentary on the titles and origins of the various tunes, griping good-naturedly about the vast amounts of snow which have dogged the tour, and generally bantering with the audience.

Early in the show, after some particularly hearty applause from the audience, Crawford warned them from wearing out too early. "You're so generous at the very start," he said. "Save some up -- we need you for the whole night."

The spotlight during tunes shifted primarily between Crawford and Smyth, each of whom had a share of solos and who combined to produce some sterling flute and fiddle duets atop the framework provided by the rest of the band. Vallely, who was not on Lunasa's first album (uilleann pipes were recorded by guest musicians Mike McGoldrick and John McSherry) also had time to shine on both the pipes and low whistle.

"You might have gathered by now, we don't sing in the band," Crawford noted at one point during the show. "We tried it once and it didn't work -- and we resolved never to do it again." That caveat preceded their performance of "The Killarney Boys of Pleasure," a song with the words excised (and the tune, Crawford admitted, decidedly rewritten, too).

Fans of the CD Otherworld got a chance to hear a lot of those tunes (including "January Snows/Laura Lynn Cunningham," "The Miller of Drohan" and "Dr. Gilbert/Devils of Dublin/Black Pat's") played live. Even better, Lunasa filled the show with a lot of new material, and hinted broadly at the future release of a new album. While no recording can capture the concert experience, it's definitely a release to look forward to. In the meantime, try to catch Lunasa on tour -- it's a show not to be missed!

[ by Tom Knapp ]